- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

The celebration of Black History Month always reminds me of the day Aunt Mary made gumbo for the Mercy Seat Missionary Club ladies. I was in my late teens, visiting from rural Alabama; she lived in Biloxi, Miss., and was married to a jazz trumpeter from New Orleans.

I still can see her scurrying about the kitchen, chopping celery, onions, bell peppers and garlic; cleaning shellfish, sauteing chicken and sausage; stirring the flour and oil or roux for the gravy; tasting the broth. In between, she would set her arms akimbo and sound off about gumbo’s African origin, about who knew how to make good gumbo and who didn’t.

“Most folks think that you just throw a whole bunch of stuff in a pot and you got a gumbo,” said my aunt, who back in the early 1940s had lived for a while in Los Angeles and was Hollywood-struck.

“A gumbo is like a good show: You got to make it act by act, in layers,” she said, throwing back her head and laughing. “If you don’t, you end up with a real mess.” The next day, shortly before 2 p.m., half a dozen late-middle-age women filed up the walkway onto the front porch, all club members.

Aunt Mary whispered, “Here they come.”

In minutes, I heard the screen door rattling, followed by a crisp rap. Aunt Mary motioned me to the front door and then turned and whirled toward the kitchen.

“Hi, child,” “Hi, girl,” “Hi, hon,” the ladies said to me almost in unison, brushing past and into the living room. One of the women looked in my direction and said offhandedly, “Growing up cute,” and then called to the kitchen, “How you doin’, Mary?”

“Have a seat,” Aunt Mary said, and already I could hear the excitement in her voice. “Out in a minute.”

In seconds, my beloved aunt bounded out of the kitchen, placed a big steaming bowl of gumbo on a mat in the center of her old mahogany dining table, stepped back and bowed ever so slightly.

“Gumbo,” a woman named Mrs. Cora shouted, her voice inflected with genuine surprise. “Mary, how could you?”

So began my introduction to a storied dish that many blacks claim as our own culinary creation, for gumbo was born during the throes of slavery, patterned after the one-pot stews of West Africa. These include multilayered dishes such as Jollof rice, okra stews, and pots of greens made with hot chilies and spices West Africans have feasted on since well before the slave trade.

Culinary historians generally agree — although not on much else — that by the mid-1700s, black cooks in New Orleans plantation kitchens were making a kind of gumbo, which was a pot or “mess of greens” such as collards, turnips, mustard greens and spinach that were simmered and thickened with okra and eaten during Lent.

This dish was called “gombo aux herbes” or “gombo z’herbes,” meaning “okra with herbs or greens.” Note here that the word “gombo” is derived from the French and the Bantu words for okra, which is indigenous to Africa.

Gombo eventually slipped to gumbo, spawning in its wake endless variations of the dish. By the time the Louisiana Territory was purchased from the French in 1803, international trade and other forces had converged in the region, and many hands were stirring the gumbo pots.

Creole cooks nursed the dish, and French Acadian (Cajun) influences provided the roux, a classic touch for thickening gravy and sauces. Hot chilies from the Caribbean, and later from New Iberia, La., added heat to the dish.

Another local ingredient, dried sassafras leaves, now referred to as gumbo file, was borrowed from the Indians and used as a thickener, replacing okra. Often a tablespoon or two of the leaves are stirred into the cooked gumbo when it is bubbling hot and ready to serve. Although most professional chefs say it is sinful to use both okra and file in a gumbo, many home cooks do just that.

“In this neck of the woods, if you don’t use both okra and file in gumbo, people don’t like it,” says my oldest brother, John, who lives in Biloxi, not far from Aunt Mary’s old house. “We like both flavors. Okra has a woody flavor, and gumbo file gives a nice flinty taste.”

No matter. Gumbo is a culinary delight: silky from a browned roux; flavored deeply from broth braced with herbs and peppers; and redolent with shellfish, smoky sausage, chicken, duck, ham, veal, okra, tomatoes or whatever you like. It conjures exotic images of Old World cuisine. At its best, I find gumbo to be superior to bouillabaisse and paella, two other world-famous one-pot dishes.

Over the years, I have feasted regally on gumbo at family reunions; Christmas and New Year’s parties; Kwanzaa celebrations; knockdown bashes at Super Bowl halftimes; and the home of an old pal, Julius “Jay” Manigault, who makes the dish whenever the spirit hits. Thankfully, that’s at least several times a year.

“When I make a pot of gumbo, I feel as though I am stirring history,” says Jay, who hails from Moncks Corner, S.C., but lives in New York City. “Sometimes I think I see my ancestors in the pot.”

Perhaps it’s the roux that imparts such an otherworldliness to gumbo. The combination of flour and oil is stirred and cooked to a burnished color, and it not only thickens the gumbo broth but also binds the other ingredients in a smooth, ethereal sauce.

Just how thick the gumbo sauce should be is a matter of debate. By definition, a gumbo is a thickened soup brimming with seafood, vegetables, meats, herbs and spices, a full meal in a bowl, with an underpinning of rice. Some people like the stewing liquid thick and viscous, while others, like my Aunt Mary, who wasn’t shy with her opinions, prefer a thinner broth.

“The gumbo sauce should be just a little heavier than maple syrup but not as thick as honey,” I must have heard her say a hundred times over the years. “You don’t want all that seafood and stuff stuck in wallpaper glue.”

For eight to 10 cups of liquid or stock, Aunt Mary would make the roux using cup flour and cup oil, which she would stir lovingly and cook until it was deep tan and emitted a nutty aroma like roasted peanuts.

Mention the word “gumbo,” and Louisiana comes to mind, but similar one-pot dishes are common in many other parts of the South. The women in my family in Alabama made a stew using the trinity of okra, tomatoes and corn, boosted with a meaty smoked hambone and chicken wings or backs. Thickened with a few tablespoons of flour that had been browned and stored in a Mason jar, the stew was then simmered and served over rice. It was a kind of gumbo but was called plain okra-and-tomato stew, not a fancy New Orleans name.

Variations using shrimp or sausage, or both, but always okra are still popular in South Carolina, where slaves played a key role in antebellum rice production as well as cooking in the region’s famed plantation rice kitchens. Some food historians say that’s where gumbo was really born.

However, most agree that blacks’ culinary history runs long and deep in the New World, as wondrous, complex and ingenious as a pot of gumbo.

Gulf Coast gumbo

Jay Manigault helped me develop this recipe for my cookbook “Soul Food: Recipes and Reflections From African-American Churches” (HarperCollins).

2 pounds medium shrimp in shells

1 sliced onion, a bay leaf and a few celery ribs, optional

2 pounds fresh okra (see note)

1 pounds smoked sausage, turkey, beef or pork

2 large red or green bell peppers, or mixture

2 celery ribs

2 large yellow onions

3 to 4 cloves garlic

cup peanut or corn oil, divided

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley or fresh basil

1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or more if desired

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoons dried thyme, crushed

cup unbleached flour

1 28-ounce can undrained tomatoes

4 bay leaves

1 tablespoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels

3 cups shucked oysters

1 pound crabmeat

Cooked rice

Rinse, peel and devein shrimp. Set shrimp aside. To make the fish stock, place shrimp shells in a large stockpot, cover with 7 cups water, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1 to 1 hours to make 5 to 6 cups stock. (If desired, add sliced onion, bay leaf and a few celery ribs to the stock pot for additional flavor.) Set stock aside.

Rinse okra and cut off the end tips, but don’t cut into the pods. Steam the okra in a pot filled with 1 cup boiling water for 4 to 5 minutes, or place in a steamer basket and set in a pot over boiling water for about 7 minutes, or until just tender but still crisp. Remove okra from pot or steamer, cool completely and then cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.

Cut sausage crosswise into -inch-thick slices. Core and chop the bell peppers; dice the celery. Slice onions. Finely crush garlic.

Using a large, heavy pot, heat 1/4 cup oil. Add sausage, bell pepper, celery, onion, garlic to taste, parsley or basil, hot red pepper flakes to taste and thyme to the pot. Saute over low heat 7 or 8 minutes or until onion is soft and translucent and bell pepper is tender. Remove vegetables from pot and set aside.

Add remaining 1/4 cup oil to the pot, and stir in the flour, mixing briskly with a wire whisk. Cook flour-oil mixture over moderate low heat for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring constantly, or until the flour turns the shade of walnuts or peanuts but not deep brown. This is the roux. Watch carefully; don’t allow the flour to burn. If the it burns, discard and start over.

Return sauteed vegetables to the pot, then stir in the tomatoes with the tomato juice, bay leaves, salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, stirring briskly, breaking up the tomatoes into small pieces, and cook over high heat for 3 or so minutes. Immediately reduce heat to low, and cook sauce 30 minutes longer, uncovered, stirring occasionally.

Without increasing the heat, strain the reserved fish stock and pour 5 or so cups into the gumbo pot, stirring until well-blended. If the gumbo sauce is bubbling, reduce the heat a bit. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 40 minutes to 1 hour, or until the liquid thickens to the consistency of heavy maple syrup.

Stir in the reserved okra, corn, shrimp, oysters and crabmeat and cook, stirring gently from time to time, over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes or until the shrimp are pink and tender. Taste gumbo and add more salt, black pepper or hot pepper flakes, if desired. If you prefer the gumbo thinner, stir in any remaining stock. Remove gumbo from heat and serve it over rice. Serves 10 generously.

Note: 2 10-ounce packages frozen whole okra can substitute for fresh okra. Cut unthawed okra into 1-inch pieces and stir into the gumbo pot when adding the corn and shellfish, and proceed as directed above.

Gumbo z’herbes

Observers of Lent and vegetarians can substitute vegetable broth for chicken broth in this recipe and omit the smoked turkey or ham.

1 pound fresh collard greens

1 pound fresh mustard or turnip greens

1 pound fresh kale or Swiss chard

1 bunch scallions

1 large green or red bell pepper

3 or 4 celery ribs

4 or 5 cloves garlic

1/3 cup corn, peanut or olive oil

2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

teaspoon cayenne or hot red pepper flakes, or to taste

teaspoon ground cloves or nutmeg

2 teaspoons ground ginger or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger root

2 tablespoons crushed coriander seed

3 cups chicken broth

2 bay leaves

1 pound fresh okra (see note)

pound smoked turkey or ham, or more if desired

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Cooked rice

Pick over the greens and discard any with yellowing or wilted leaves. Cut the coarse stems from the greens and discard. Stack a dozen or so collard leaves at a time and roll them tightly, jellyroll fashion. Place on a cutting board and, using a sharp knife, cut each roll crosswise into -inch strips. Continue rolling and cutting this way until all the greens are cut. Tear the mustard or turnip greens and kale or Swiss chard into pieces.

Wash greens at least 3 or 4 times in a large pan of cold water, swishing to remove any sand or grit. Place in colander, flood with water, drain and set aside.

Chop scallion, core and dice bell pepper, mince celery, and finely chop or crush the garlic. Heat oil in a 5-quart pot. Add scallion, bell pepper, celery and garlic.

Stir in salt, black pepper and cayenne or red pepper flakes to taste, cloves or nutmeg, ginger and crushed coriander. Saute over low heat, stirring occasionally, 7 or 8 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

Add chicken broth, bay leaves and 2 cups water to the pot. Raise heat to high, and bring liquid to a boil. Using a long-handled spoon, stir in the greens, a few handfuls at a time, turning over and over in the pot liquor until leaves are completely immersed. Cover pot; cook greens over low heat for about 30 minutes or until just tender.

Meanwhile, rinse the okra and cut off the ends of the tips but leave the pods whole. Cut the smoked turkey or ham into -inch-wide strips. Add okra, meat and vinegar to the pot, and mix well.

Taste gumbo and adjust seasoning, adding more cayenne or hot red pepper flakes and salt, if desired. cover the pot and cook the gumbo over low heat for 1 hour longer, stirring occasionally, or until all the vegetables are deep in color, the okra is tender and slick and the gumbo has thickened. Serve with rice. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: 2 10-ounce packages frozen whole okra can substitute for fresh okra. Cut unthawed okra into 1-inch pieces and stir into the gumbo pot when adding the turkey and ham, and proceed as directed above.

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