A REVIEW OF
W.W. Norton and Company
‘Gumbo Life’ serves spicy La. history
By Jim Ewing
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
In Louisiana’s “Gumbo Belt,” the state’s southern tier of counties, “babies eat gumbo as soon as they go off the breast or the bottle.”
Their mommas make sure of this, writes Ken Wells in his fascinating gustatory history, “Gumbo Life.”
In his book, subtitled “Tales from the Roux Bayou,” the Pelican State native weaves astounding facts, absorbing anecdotes, and incisive asides that revolve around the delights of gumbo and the state from which it sprang.
Like Blues and Jazz, he writes, gumbo is purely American and like Americans themselves, its origins are diverse, partly indigenous, partly imported, and shrouded in mystery.
It’s known, for example, he writes, that filé, a crucial gumbo ingredient composed of the powder of crushed sassafras leaves, is of Native American origin.
In fact, the Choctaw name for filé was kombo which rhymes with gumbo.
An early Native American dish along the Gulf Coast, he reports, was composed of three cups of filé; salt water scooped from the Gulf; and fresh caught shrimp brought to a boil.
But that’s not the only possible antecedent, not the least of which was the African component brought by slaves. In the African Bantu dialect, the name for okra was ki ngombo or simply gombo or gombeau. Okra and rice recipes were a staple in their native region.
The “soul” of gumbo, he relates, is the roux — oil and flour mixed while heating — originating with the French.
In this stew, so to speak, of gumbo’s origins, Wells speculates that early French Canadian fur trappers made roux with bear fat (which actually makes a more robust and darker roux than butter due to its higher smoke point when heated). Their Native American wives (European women were unavailable in the wilds) combined their skills to the mix. Later, slaves provided okra and rice; Spanish, spices; German, smoked sausage; and Italian immigrants added chopped tomatoes. Central to this mix was the Cajun “Trinity” of celery, onions, and bell peppers. Thus was created the five- or seven-nations origin to the food that’s known ’round the world today.
But it wasn’t always so. Prior to World War II, Wells writes, not only was gumbo little known outside of South Louisiana, but each region of that area had its own signature gumbo:
— New Orleans Creolized see-the-bottom-of-the-bowl seafood and okra gumbos with their medium roux and diced tomatoes that the most Cajuns don’t put in their gumbos;
— The medium thick, pecan-colored roux of the Cajun and Creole southeast Louisiana bayou region, which trend to okra with seafood because of that area’s access to the Gulf;
— The dark roux chicken-and-andouille gumbos of Southwest Cajun country.
“There was simply no gumbo intercourse” for trading recipes when he was growing up, Wells writes. Then, three or four generations of South Louisiana families might live next door to each other on plots of land passed down through generations. Each had its special mix of common ingredients for the dish handed down to them word of mouth.
Nowadays, of course, with the Internet, there’s every type of mix-and-match concoction labeled as simply “gumbo.”
Wells is a knowledgeable guide for presenting a comprehensive guide for the culinary treat and its native place. Born at Bayou Black, La., his father was a part-time alligator hunter and snake collector. His French-speaking Cajun mother taught him how to shop for gumbo ingredients at the docks, how to properly heat and stir the roux to its perfect color and consistency, and, perhaps best of all, recognize that gumbo is more than the sum of its parts — with a soul that finds its magic in the heart of the maker.
The first of his family to graduate from college, Wells started his career as a newsman at the Houma, La., Courier and went on to write for more than two decades for the Wall Street Journal, traveling the world. He’s written both novels and nonfiction.
Excellently written, “Gumbo” is an intriguing, diverse story in the ecology of local food, worthy of every foodie’s library. It includes a glossary of terms and a section of authentic gumbo recipes.
Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at the Clarion Ledger, is the author of seven books including Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating.