In Louisiana, everyone has a gumbo story. I’ve gathered a few favorite declarations about gumbo in my quest to write my own:
“Gumbo is a food group.” —Pableaux Johnson
“Gumbo is like a religion.” —Melissa M. Martin
“Gumbo is a celebration.” —Wayne Baquet, Sr.
These proclamations hint at an elusiveness that is essential to gumbo, one that I have found to be, at turns, bewildering and tantalizing. How could a humble pot of food hold something so sublime that it converts all Louisianians—no matter how wildly different their environments and backgrounds—into gumbo evangelists, zealots even?
Maybe taking a look at three specific gumbo stories can give us a clue.
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Gifts from Gumbo Claus
Pableaux Johnson is also known as Gumbo Claus because of his decade-long practice of handing out quarts of his turkey-bone gumbo around the holidays. I’ve come to depend on him as my gumbo mentor.
When I asked him how he makes his gumbo, Johnson’s first response was almost philosophical. “My gumbo is less a recipe than a process. Almost like a cycle. It takes place during a season.”
Pressed for specifics, he produced this gem: “I buy a [ton] of turkeys and smoke them over the course of a very long time and then turn them into gumbo over the course of a very long time.” In this way, he explains, it’s a variation on a typical post-Thanksgiving gumbo using the leftover turkey and carcass. So it’s a turkey and sausage gumbo. But that doesn’t do it justice. He calls it a “stock‑first, roux‑last gumbo.” He smokes turkeys, picks the meat, and makes a rich stock with the bones. The roux doesn’t get added until after the stock has cooked down with the other ingredients.
He includes the trinity of onion, bell pepper, and celery, but Johnson is keen to point out that the onion gets treated differently. With supreme patience he “cooks down 30 pounds of onions until they resemble something like hashish,” that is, until they’ve been transformed into an intensely dark, concentrated higher form of themselves.
Another key is the sausages he uses: andouille (a very coarsely cut sausage seasoned heavily with garlic, black pepper, and smoke) and smoked sausage (a finer, emulsified sausage with a completely different finished texture)—both from Jacob’s in LaPlace.
According to Johnson, these are “the pinnacle of their form made at a very specific place by very specific people.” These are the kinds of pork products so crucial to a specific gumbo’s essential character and deliciousness that you don’t mind driving west out of New Orleans for 30 miles to get them.
Asked if there’s anything else he needs to tell me about his gumbo, Johnson gets adamant again, expressing the deeply personal, ultimately subjective nature of all gumbos: “Everybody has a different way that they do it. My gumbo is like my thumbprint. No one will say, ‘I have the best thumbprint.’ You don’t. It’s just you.” I like Johnson’s gumbo. A lot.
Here are two more gumbo stories, both of which originate in two very different traditions, approaching the opposite poles of the gumbo continuum.
Not All Cajun Gumbo Is What You Expect
Melissa M. Martin is a coastal Louisiana Cajun by birth, lauded New Orleans chef by profession, and author of the hauntingly beautiful Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes from a Disappearing Bayou (2020), which is filled with recipes from her acclaimed Mosquito Supper Club restaurant.
For Martin, whose family includes shrimpers and oyster fishermen whose lifestyles always meant cooking according to the seasons, Cajun food is about the excellence of local seafood and produce. It’s also predominantly the purview of women cooking at home. In the tradition of her mother and grandmother, Martin’s Cajun gumbos take a purist’s pride in simplicity.
With a fisherman’s reverence for the pristine seafood that is her peoples’ birthright, Martin recalls how her mother’s “subtle, modest, timeless” shrimp okra gumbo—which she calls the ultimate gumbo—required only “the perfect shrimp, a few vegetables, a couple of seasonings, and her Magnalite pot.” A gumbo made without a roux, it rests on the strong foundation of smothered okra (okra cooked low and slow in a covered pot for 8 hours) and sweet, fresh shrimp. It’s seasoned simply with onions; bay leaf; modest amounts of black and cayenne pepper; and a mild, vinegary Louisiana hot sauce.
This is the gumbo by which Martin judges all others. It’s a gumbo emblematic of the heart of Cajun cooking, a home-cooked cuisine stamped with the terroir of rural Louisiana—whether bayous or prairies—and one that defies popular impressions of Cajun food left by Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse at the height of their fame in the 1980s and ’90s.
Gumbo Is Personal
The final gumbo story in our trilogy is different too. It’s that of Wayne Baquet, Sr., founder of Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe, a New Orleans Creole restaurant in the historic Tremé neighborhood. If Martin’s Cajun gumbos prize simplicity, Creole gumbos in the style of the Baquet family seem to showcase and celebrate abundance.
Baquet discussed his Creole gumbo in an oral history interview for the Southern Foodways Alliance. He learned the restaurant business from his father Edward Joseph Baquet, Sr., “namesake of the legendary 7th Ward restaurant Eddie’s,” and went on to open a total of 11 restaurants over the ensuing 40 years.
Starting with his mother’s recipe, he and his father perfected their gumbo—commonly referenced as one of the city’s finest—by engineering a fully seasoned dry roux (toasted in the oven) that would ensure that the family gumbo tasted the same at each of their restaurants. In addition to their signature roux, their Creole filé gumbo features crab, shrimp, their own homemade hot sausage, smoked sausage, and ham. The trinity; garlic; bay leaf; thyme (which Baquet notes is essential); and a final sprinkling of earthy, green tea–like filé powder round out the extraordinary gumbo. It’s relatively light and brothy but in no way insubstantial. Rather, it’s rich and robust (just as Baquet says that gumbo has “got to be”), unforgettable and completely distinct.
Baquet’s final word on gumbo, when asked to define it, was that “gumbo is the soup of New Orleans with soul in it.” If any bowl of soup can be said to have a soul, a kind of essence that exists apart from and transcendent of its mere physical components, Li’l Dizzy’s gumbo would be the one.
Perhaps this is the deeper meaning of the common refrain that “gumbo is personal.” Chances are, if you’re a Louisiana family—whether you’re surrounded by brackish bayous on tendrils of land fading into the great Gulf or you can trace your Creole ancestry back to the names on crypts in 200-year-old New Orleans cemeteries—you have a family gumbo. You make a version of the one you love so much because that’s the one your mother made and because her mother did too.
A New Gumbo Story Begins
Though she made the world’s finest potato salad, my mother did not make gumbo. Just three and a half years into my life in New Orleans, I am a relatively fresh convert to the religion of gumbo. But I am devout, absorbing the cuisine and everything written about the cuisine at as fast a clip as one human can handle. My gumbo story is short, but I am still writing it.
I had my first gumbo in New Orleans on a trip with a girl while we were still at the beginning stages of careening wildly into love. I can still see the single red crab claw, emerging from gumbo’s dark waters, beckoning me in. That trip hooked me on the soup and the girl for good.
A native of New Orleans with French-Sicilian roots, she’s now my wife of 14 years, and she is the first person to have made me gumbo. She always told me to take my time with the roux, to stir it for as long as it takes to play one side of a record. Later on, the cookbooks of Paul Prudhomme dared me to make the roux faster and darker, preheating the oil to the smoke point before adding the flour and stirring for only about 10 minutes. My wife hasn’t divorced me yet.
Of course, Johnson’s gumbo has had a huge impact on mine as well. From him I take the stock‑first approach, replacing the turkey with a whole chicken and layering in smokiness with ham hocks. He’s convinced me completely about using two kinds of sausage; two of my personal favorites are the intensely smoky kind from Bourgeois Meat Market out in Thibodaux, Louisiana (thank you to the kind man behind the counter there for teaching me how to pronounce AHN-doo-ee), and Jacob’s World Famous Andouille.
And since I learned to love gumbo first in the “more is more” Creole style of the city, I side with their abundant approach when adding things to my pot. After all, gumbo is a celebration, and I made my first, proudest, big batches for the most revered high holidays: one at Thanksgiving and then again for Christmas a month later and then again for Mardi Gras the following March, adding to a cyclical story I hope never ends and only gets richer.
I lavished love on those gumbos, carefully and patiently tending to them, knowing full well that they would reward me, that when I ladled the gumbo into bowls for my friends and family to feast on that I would be proud and that it would be more than worth it, knowing that if you’re going to go to the effort to make a gumbo, it should be one worth telling stories about.