- Foodles by Megan Pendergrass; http://www.dailyfoodles.com
New Orleans Gumbo – A Six Part Series
To read the other parts of this series, click here.
This hearty and flavorful bowl of soup is one dish that hits near to the hearts of those who reside in New Orleans. Not only is this food item an important staple in many homes of Louisiana, it is one that epitomizes the state’s cuisine as a whole. This enduring dish serves as a time machine to transport an individual back to the beginning of the cuisine’s existence. Exhibiting many diverse cultural influences, this dish provides an excellent example of the cultural melting pot of New Orleans. Evident in almost all of the city’s cuisine, the cooking traditions of those that immigrated fused together with the creation of what is known as one of the unique cuisines in America – the Creole Cuisine. This five-part series will focus on the histories and influences of the French, African, Spanish and German cultures, as well as particular ingredients, on the celebrated evolution of the Creole cuisine.
In the third part, we explore the African influence on Creole cuisine.
- Three African American women in fashionable dress of the era, New Orleans, 1867. Illustration by Edouard Marquis. Wikimedia Commons.
One of the strongest influences on the food preparation and cooking techniques of the Creole cuisine is that of the African cookery. One important cooking method that became popular among the Creoles was the use of a grating stone to pulverize corn, beans, rice or cassava to make flour and meal. This flour and/or meal were then used to make cakes and breads. Similar to the process of this cooking technique was the use of a mortar and pestle to pound dry peppers, seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables into pastes of which were then added to several dishes, especially when making sauces and stews. Barbecuing, today enjoyed by many families during the spring and summer months, is a food preparation recognizably associated with African American cookery. (13) To be clear, however, the technique of barbecuing did not in fact derive from African cuisine. Instead, this practice has been linked to the cooking preparations of the Caribbean “Indies” natives. Interestingly, the natives’ word barbacoa actually means barbecuing rack, which was at the time a rack of sticks positioned over a hot bed of coal. Over time, the practice of barbecuing was introduced and very popular among the settlers of the New World. During the 19th century, when the slave trade had changed the populace of the south, African slaves were often given the laborious job of barbecuing. To some, the connotation of laborious might seem incongruous; however, during that time, slaves, typically male, were summoned to prepare large quantities of slow-cooked meat. This job required heavy lifting, due to the large quantity of meats, and long periods of time outdoors. Over generations, the African slaves and their descendents master the skill of, what we today know as, true southern barbecue – one of the iconic foods of the south.(14)
In contrast to the process of barbecuing is deep fat frying. This cooking method, as many of us know, requires taking pieces of meat, fish or shellfish and smothering them in a batter, of which they are then deep fat fried – Creole fried chicken is a traditional dish made using this
technique. Typical of West African food customs was serving fried or grilled poultry over rice, along with some type of sauce. This practice became characteristic of many Creole dishes. (15)
The word “gumbo” derives from the word for okra in the Central Bantu dialect of West Africa. This region of West Africa was also the home of many of the African slaves who settled in Louisiana after 1719.(16) Although they brought with them many new cookery methods involving the use of many spices, the preparation of stews, and a love for greens, one vegetable that remains the most influential to much of the Creole cuisine is okra.
Okra, also known today as “lady fingers,” whose scientific name is Abelmoschus esculentus, is an Old World plant that is a member of the Malvaceae, or mallow, family. It is related to the cotton plant, hollyhock, rose of Sharon, and hibiscus.(17) In early history, the plant was abundant in both Africa and Asia. It is said to have been discovered in Ethiopia during the 12th century B.C. and to have been cultivated by the ancient Egyptians.(18) As mentioned briefly above, okra was brought to the Americas from Africa via the workings of the slave trade. Evidence to support this is the fact that the word “okra” actually derives from the West African word, “nkruma.”(19) Once in the Southern Americas, the African American slaves typically grew the plant in their plantation owners’ gardens – thus, sparking its introduction into American cooking.
There are many ways to use okra when cooking. The fuzzy pods, which are elongated and tapered in shape and best when picked young, are quite often steamed, boiled, fried, or pickled. However, what makes this fruit distinctive of others is its mucilaginous texture when cooked in liquid. During this process, the fruit excretes a glutinous substance that thickens the liquid – making it popular for use in preparing soups and stews. Although less commonly heard of today, okra leaves and flowers are indeed edible. Generally, they are cooked as greens, similar those of beets or dandelions – which are sautéed in oil. The leaves, however, can be used in salads as well. In another sense, the leaves, as well as the pods, can be dried and crushed into a powder, giving it more of a spice quality used to flavor and thicken foods. The seeds can also be ground up into a meal, which can then be used in making bread or oils. Interestingly, during the Civil War years, when coffee was sparse due to the northern blockade, some southerners used the ground seeds as a substitute for coffee.(20) From a nutritional standpoint, okra is a good source of B vitamins, especially B6, potassium, magnesium, and dietary fiber.(21)
African slaves of the 1800s were said to have eaten okra paired with rice, two key ingredients in gumbo. During colonial Louisiana, African slaves – as well as French housewives – typically lacked many food goods. Consequently, this pushed the slaves to be quite creative with their cooking and make careful use of what was available to them at that time. Cuts of meats, generally of rooster, hen, and beef, were most often tough and needed to be tenderized for eating purposes. To do this, they boiled and simmered the meat in a large kettle for many hours. This process resulted in a hearty stock that was generally thickened with okra, roux, or filé, a powder made from dried wild sassafras leaves.(22) Although there are many variations of how to
make gumbo, many remain strong to their roots and say that a gumbo without okra is no gumbo at all. As noted chef and native New Orleanian Joseph Carey states, “In the strictest sense, a dish without okra cannot be a gumbo.”(23)
13 Kein, Sybil, ed. Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. (p. 244-251)
14 Hinson, Glenn, and William Ferris, eds. Folklife. Vol. 14 of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. (p. 254-256)
15 Kein, Sybil, ed. Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. (p. 244-251)
16 Tucker, Susan, ed. New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
17 “Okra, Roselle, Aibika, & Kenaf (Other Edible Hibiscus), 2000.
18 “Vegetable of the Month: Okra,” 2012.
19 Smith, Andrew F., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.(p. 211-212).
20 Smith, Andrew F., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. (p. 211-212).
21 Farrar, Maureen Meyers. “Okra.” Better Nutrition 67, no. 8 (2005): 28. Academic Search Premier: 17535886.
22 Tucker, Susan, ed. New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
23 Carey, Joseph. Creole Nouvelle: Contemporary Creole Cookery. Lanham: Taylor Trade, 2004. (p. 34).