Since the weather’s starting to cool down over here (I had to wear a scarf today – a SCARF!), I’ve started hankering after the autumnal foods of my childhood. Among them is gumbo, particularly seafood gumbo.
Now, even in the South, there are all sorts of things are sitting on menus masquerading as gumbo and I am here to tell you the truth!
… Just kidding. Actually it’s not unheard of for gumbo to comprise of whatever’s at hand. Traditionally there are two types: Cajun, which has a darker base, is spicier, and can contain fowl or sausage as well as seafood; and Creole, which typically focuses on seafood, adds tomatoes, and tends to be less spicy and lighter. Variations have sprung from there. Ultimately, though, gumbo is a thick stew with either seafood/shellfish, ham, sausage or poultry (hardly ever any other pork or beef), and the ‘Cajun Holy Trinity’ of green bellpepper, onion, and celery (though the latter was hardly used in Creole gumbo prior to the 1950s). A sure-fire identifier is whatever forms the stew’s base and/or thickens it: file’ powder, roux (fat and flour), or okra, and sometimes combinations thereof. It is designed to feed a crowd, and thus is often served over rice.
The name ‘gumbo’ itself is a possible evolution from either the Choctaw kombo (for file’) or ki ngombo / quingombo / ochinggômbo / chinggômbô (Bantu, Umbundu and Tshiluba, respectively) for okra. Hardly surprising, considering the variety of cuisines gumbo has evolved from – elements have been brought from Spain, France and the Acadians (such as its similarity to bouillabaise), Africa, Native American, and a bit of German and Italian for good measure. Louisiana itself is a melting-pot, and gumbo typifies this culture.
My recipe was my paternal grandmother’s, given to me through my mother on one of her recipe cards. This grandmother, Marylene, is the sister of the Great-Aunt Nonie from whom came the Country Chili. Mom used to make it with real lump crabmeat sometimes, and fresh shrimp always, that she got by the pound from a man in a blue pick-up on the side of Hwy61, in front of the feed store across from the Myrtles. I remember craning my neck to see into the sink while she was cleaning and de-veining them, and finding the fact that they were gray very strange. my job was to keep shooing the cats off the counter.
We didn’t have this dish very often, but it was one that made an impression on me and was one of the first things I cooked, ever. It’s been a favorite ever since, and was one of the first meals C and I cooked together (long-distance over webcam, no less!).