The Real Story of Gumbo, Okra, and Filé

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Okra or filé? Thickeners in gumbo are a complicated story. [Photograph: Robert Terrell, Flickr]

You can learn a lot about the history of Southern food by studying a bowl of gumbo. The very name conjures up a rich array of ingredients coming together in a single pot and melding into something rich and delicious. It represents the intersection of three cultures—European, Native American, and West African—that created what we know today as Southern cuisine.

In the case of gumbo, though, we really need to phrase it as the intersection of African, Native American, and European cultures, for that ordering more accurately captures the sequence in which the dish unfolded. These days, gumbo is closely associated with Louisiana and, more specifically, with Cajun cuisine, and for good reason. But it's actually far older than the Cajun presence in Louisiana, and historically, it has a much broader regional footprint. It's a prime example of how West African foodways took root in the Southern colonies and, over time, gave birth to some of the region's most iconic dishes.

The Red Herring in the Bouillabaisse

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Not this. [Photograph: Sherry Main, Flickr]

At its most basic, what we call gumbo today is a savory stew made with a variety of meats or shellfish combined with an array of vegetables and herbs. From there, all bets are off. Gumbo can be as thin as soup or as thick as gravy. The proteins might be chicken and crab or sausage and shrimp. The stew might be thickened with okra, with filé (powdered sassafras leaves), with a dark roux (a blend of oil and flour cooked slowly until well browned), or any combination of the three.

Despite all this diversity, gumbo's development follows a logical progression, provided you can cut through a lot of bad assumptions and outright nonsense to get to it.

Let's start with the biggest red herring of all, the oft-repeated idea that gumbo is a variation of bouillabaisse, the classic fish stew from Provence. This notion is repeated everywhere from slapdash food blogs to peer-reviewed academic books. It's also completely wrong.

Yes, bouillabaisse is French, and a lot of French people migrated to Louisiana, where they ended up eating gumbo. But the two dishes are made in wholly different ways. Bouillabaisse begins with a rich broth to which an array of bone-on fish and shellfish are gradually added. The finished stew is served over or under slices of bread topped with rouille, a sort of saffron-laced mayonnaise. Even back in the 19th century, almost every commentary on bouillabaisse notes that the key to the dish is the variety of fin-fish used to make it, and that simmering that fish is vital to add complexity to the broth.

Of all the variations on gumbo out there, none of them start with broth in a pot, and even today fin-fish are almost never part of the dish. 19th century recipes make clear that okra and tomatoes were the original base ingredients, and the first protein that consistently found its way into the pot was chicken. Only later were shellfish like oysters and shrimp incorporated. It takes a remarkable leap of imagination—or, perhaps, a dull lack of it—to think that gumbo evolved from bouillabaisse.

So how did that connection come to be made in the first place? Lolis Eric Elie has a few ideas. A New Orleans native, Elie was a columnist for the Times-Picayune for 14 years, then became a script editor for the acclaimed HBO series Treme and now for AMC's Hell on Wheels. He has also been one of the strongest voices decrying the whitewashing of gumbo.

In a 2010 article for Oxford American, he methodically blasted food writers' long-standing habit of ignoring the contributions of black cooks to Louisiana's cuisine. Instead, he argued, those writers twist and bend to invent tenuous connections to every European food culture from Spain to New England—including crediting French elites with the first gumbo.

I asked Elie why he thought the bouillabaisse explanation has had such staying power. "The assumption has been," he says, "that anything you don't understand about New Orleans culture when you are an American, you assume that it's French."

But the French mystique can lead us astray. "Until relatively recently, we never studied the African influence on American culture," Elie says. "The assumption really was that the Europeans went and got these people who were capable of being taught things, but the people had nothing to contribute, so the assumption was the only contribution was labor."

In reality, no one needed to teach Africans how to cook gumbo. They brought its base ingredient with them to the New World and they cooked it using techniques that had been handed down from one generation to the next. Far from being a food tradition unique to Louisiana, gumbo is instead an important part of the larger fabric of African-based foodways in the South as a whole.

What's in a Name?

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[Photograph: Jeffreyw, Flickr]

So if not bouillabaisse, where did gumbo come from? The answer can be found in its very name. In several West African languages, the word for okra is ki ngombo, or, in its shortened form, gombo." Early on, the word was frequently used alongside "okra" by English writers. In the 1840s, when okra was just starting to be grown widely outside the coastal South, newspaper ads commonly offered seeds for "Okra or Gombo." "Gombo" is still the French word for okra today.

The roots of gumbo do run deep in Louisiana. Enslaved Africans were brought to the French colony in large numbers starting in 1719, and by 1721 more than half the residents of New Orleans were African. The first known reference to gumbo as a dish was uncovered by historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, who found a handwritten transcription of the interrogation of a 50-year-old slave named Comba in New Orleans in 1764. Suspected of being associated with other slaves who had stolen clothes and a pig, Comba is asked whether she had given a slave named Louis un gombeau, and she replies that she did.

A more detailed description was published two decades later in a French journal called Observations sur La Physique, which included an article on the American plant sassafras. The author noted that in Louisiana its leaves were dried and ground into a powder. "These leaves are used in sauces," he wrote. "A pinch of this powder is enough to make a viscous broth."

The article also noted, "This is the dish we in America call gombo. However, we must distinguish this American stew from the one called gombo févi (italics added). This is done with the pods of a species of mallow, known to botanists as the sabdariffa." Févi, it turns out, is the Louisiana Creole word for okra, and the author notes that its thickening power is even stronger than that of powdered sassafras, which the Creoles called filé.

But which came first, the févi or the filé? Some commentators have argued for filé and claim the word "gumbo" actually comes from kombo, the Choctaw term for powdered sassafras. But I've not been able to turn up a single example of a dish being called "kombo" in any 18th or 19th century source, while there are countless examples of a dish made from okra being called either "gombo" or "gumbo." By the time Peyroux was writing his treatise on sassafras, Africans had been present in Louisiana for some 60 years, plenty long enough for their traditional okra-based stews to have entered the larger culinary culture of the colony.

The most probable path is that Louisianians were eating a thick stew they called "gombo" after its main ingredient, okra. Cooks found they could achieve a similar thickness using the filé powder made by the local Choctaw, and they started substituting that when okra wasn't available.

A New Orleans Icon?

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[Photograph: Southern Foodways Alliance, Flickr]

Though well entrenched in Louisiana, gumbo was by no means a dish unique to that region. Indeed, during the colonial era and the early 19th century, similar okra-based stews and soups could be found anywhere a large number of enslaved Africans and their descendants lived—and, in fact, those dishes can still be found there today.

Tracing gumbo's roots is complicated by the fact that no African Americans recorded their recipes in cookbooks until after the Civil War, but in the early 19th century, recipes for gumbo started to pop up in writings by white authors. In 1817, the American Star of Petersburg, Virginia, ran an article describing okra, which it noted "is common in the West Indies." It provided two recipes. In the first, an equal amount of cut okra and tomatoes are stewed with onions, butter, and salt and pepper. In the other, okra is stewed in water and dressed with butter. "At St. Domingo," the writer notes, "they are called gambo."

Mary Randolph included a similar recipe for "Gumbo—A West India Dish" in The Virginia House-Wife (1824): okra stewed in water and served with melted butter. An 1831 article on okra in the New England Farmer noted the plant's "known reputation in the West Indies" and that, "a very celebrated dish, called Gombo, is prepared in those countries where okra is grown, by mixing with the green pods, ripe tomatoes, and onions; all chopped fine, to which are added pepper and salt, and the whole stewed." The 1841 edition of Webster's Dictionary defined gumbo as "A dish of food made of young capsules of ocra, with salt and pepper, stewed and served with melted butter."

In the mid 19th century, gumbo shifted from being a dish associated with the West Indies to one associated with New Orleans, perhaps thanks to the extent to which cooks and diners of all races had embraced it in Louisiana. By the late 1830s, New Orleans newspapers were already incorporating gumbo into jokes and aphorisms as a sort of well-loved local dish. In 1838, the Times-Picayune commented, "Secret of Health—Live Light and eat plenty of gumbo." In 1839, the New Orleans Times opened a light piece on sneezing by commenting, "The greatest luxury we know of, save and except a plate of gumbo, is a real old-fashioned sneeze."

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Andouilla sausage is another popular New Orleans meat for gumbo. [Photograph: Julia Frost, Flickr]

Meats started to appear in published gumbo recipes around this time, too. Eliza Leslie's Directions for Cookery (1840) includes recipes for both "Gumbo Soup," which incorporates "a round of beef" along with the okra and tomatoes, and just plain "Gumbo," the traditional stewed okra and tomatoes, which she describes as "a favourite New Orleans dish."

More common than beef in gumbo, though, was chicken. The version provided to the Mobile Mercury by Mrs. L. H. Wright in 1858 is typical. First, fry a cut-up chicken "to a nice brown color," presumably in a cast iron skillet over the coals of a fire, then add a large plateful of okra. After cooking it a little, pour over a few quarts of water and let it simmer until the chicken is tender. "The gumbo thus made will be very thick," Mrs. Wright notes, and as in most recipes of the period, she specifies that it be served with "rice boiled tender, but be careful that the grains are separate." That same basic method, often with onions and sometimes tomatoes added, can be found consistently in published recipes until well into the 20th century.

Recipes for gumbos made with filé start appearing in print just before the Civil War, suggesting that using powdered sassafras as thickener was starting to spread outside of Louisiana. The Carolina Housewife (1847) includes a recipe for "Okra Soup" made with beef, okra, and tomatoes, as well as one for "New Orleans Gumbo" made with turkey or fowl and onion, to which a hundred oysters and "two teaspoons of pulverized sassafras leaves" are added. A similar chicken-based "Filet gumbo," thickened with filé powder, appears in Miss Leslie's New Cookery Book (1857).

What Mrs. Fisher Knew

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[Photograph: Matt the Ogre, Flickr]

Does the fact that filé appears in a few non-Louisiana cookbooks mean that people outside Louisiana were actually starting to thicken gumbo with filé? What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking (1881), the second oldest known cookbook to have been written by an African-American, can help us answer that.

Abby Fisher was born around 1832 in South Carolina, apparently the daughter of a French-born slaveowner and a Carolina-born slave. She wound up in Alabama sometime before the Civil War, and from at least 1869 to 1876 she lived in Mobile with her husband, Alexander C. Fisher, an Alabama-born minister. In the late 1870s the Fishers moved westward to San Francisco, where Abby Fisher made a living as a cook and operated a pickle and preserves business with her husband.

Abby Fisher dictated her book to a committee of nine residents of San Francisco (her "lady friends and patrons") just a few years after she arrived on the West Coast.

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Sassafras leaves, used to make filé powder. [Photograph: Shutterstock]

A great many 19th century cookbook authors borrowed recipes from any and all sources, so the fact that a recipe appears in a book published in, say, Kentucky, doesn't necessarily mean it's an old Kentucky recipe. The author may very well have borrowed it from an English cookbook, and there's not even a guarantee that he or she had actually tried cooking it.

In Abby Fisher's case, it is much more likely that a recipe that appears in her book is something she learned to cook during her years in Alabama and South Carolina, and that she actually cooked it from memory on a regular basis. And that makes her three recipes for gumbo all the more interesting to historians.

There's "Ochra Gumbo" with cut okra stewed in beef broth seasoned with just salt and pepper and served with "dry boiled rice." Her "Chicken Gumbo" is made of chicken fried until brown, then added to a soup kettle with sliced okra and onions, covered with water, and simmered. And finally, there's "Oyster Gumbo Soup," which also starts with browned chicken simmered in water, but instead of okra, a quart of fresh oysters are added with their liquor and, at the very end, "one tablespoon of gumbo." There is an outside chance that by "gumbo" Mrs. Fisher meant dried and powdered okra, which appears in a few scattered recipes in the 19th century, but it's far more likely that she was talking about filé powder.

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Filé powder. [Photograph: Julia Frost, Flickr]

When I first came across this reference to adding a tablespoon of "gumbo," I was a bit deflated. I was expecting to find a clear divide between the two main 19th century gumbo styles: okra gumbo, a long-standing African tradition, and filé gumbo, a Louisiana adaptation that enlisted a Native American ingredient. I expected that Abby Fisher, whose cooking by all reasonable explanations would have drawn primarily upon her experience in Alabama and possibly South Carolina, wouldn't be one to use filé. But, there it was.

It took several days before the realization hit me, and it's an explanation that's easy to miss in this era of frozen foods and vegetables grown in California and Peru and shipped thousands of miles in refrigerated containers. Okra is seasonal, and in the South it can be picked only from July until October. In the 19th century, one couldn't make gombo févi in December or May because there was no okra to put in it. But okra's thickening effect could be simulated in a stew by using dried and powdered sassafras leaves.

This idea is consistent with Lolis Eric Elie's memories of gumbo in 20th-century New Orleans. "We always had okra in it when I was growing up," Elie recalls. "But people would always make a distinction between okra and filé gumbo. They said you ate filé gumbo in the winter when okra was out of season."

Beyond Louisiana Gumbo

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[Photograph: sstrieu, Flickr]

So here we are, with a West African dish having taken firm root in the American South, most deeply in Louisiana but with a significant footprint in other coastal areas, too. That footprint can still be found today outside of Louisiana, though many diners may not necessarily make a connection between it and Louisiana-style gumbo. When considering gumbo's broader impact on the South, it helps to look to regions beyond Louisiana, such as the coastal Lowcountry of South Carolina.

BJ Dennis is a personal chef and caterer in Charleston, South Carolina, and he specializes in Gullah Geechee cuisine. He grew up in the 1980s and 1990s eating traditional Lowcountry foods with West African pedigrees without thinking much about them. It wasn't until he decided to pursue a culinary career that he started really digging into the culinary heritage of his grandparents and their generation. That heritage includes traditional West African-style gumbo, which is often called okra soup in the Lowcountry.

"I heard it both ways [growing up]," Dennis says. "Mainly from my grandparents, they would always say okra soup, though I've heard okra gumbo, too."

A lot of okra-based dishes in Gullah Geechee cuisine likely have a direct link to 19th century "gombo." Many involve a thick tomato-based sauce in which meat or seafood are cooked along with onions, spices, and, of course, okra. There are plenty of recipes for "okra and tomatoes" and "shrimp and okra", too, that are almost identical to the more basic gumbo recipes being published in the 1820s and 1830s.

"Okra was the main staple vegetable in the summertime," Dennis says, "It's one of the few that thrives because it's so hot." Fortuitously, okra is in season at the same time as shrimp, which is a natural flavor match. "They were always the small creek shrimp," Dennis recalls. "Usually you would have that in with some sort of smoked meat."

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[Photograph: Jeffreyw, Flickr]

Dennis makes sautéed shrimp and okra in a cast iron skillet, adding onion and garlic along with a little chile and ginger and finishing it with diced tomato and herbs like parsley and thyme. You can find his recipe here.

Other Gullah chefs in the Lowcountry are noted for their gumbos and okra dishes, too. At Gullah Cuisine in Mt. Pleasant, Charlotte Jenkins serves her mother's recipe for "okra gumbo", which includes shrimp, chicken, and pork sausage. Bill Green serves shrimp gumbo at his Gullah Grub Restaurant on St. Helena Island, and when okra is in season he makes a shrimp and okra dish that's very similar to Dennis's, including incorporating ginger.

Filé powder may have appeared in the Carolina Housewife, but it wasn't much known in the Gullah Geechee communities. They had a different way of making do when the usual ingredients were out of season. "They did a gumbo in wintertime when shrimp season was over," Dennis says. "They took the shrimp and dried them out along with okra in the roofs of the houses. In the winter time [my grandfather's] mother would make okra soup or gumbo. That's a kind of really close to a traditional West African style of gumbo."

You might notice that, up to this point, we've not said a word about roux, that third way of thickening gumbo, and one that for many cooks today is the very essence of the dish. That innovation came along later than okra and filé, and we'll look at the story of roux-based gumbos in a later installment.

It has taken culinary historians and food writers far too long to recognize the central role that African American cooks played in creating what we know today as Southern cuisine. But those cooks were there from the very beginning, and their contributions were foundational, providing essential ingredients, techniques, and the very sensibility that defines Southern cooking. There's no better way to taste that legacy than with a good bowl of gumbo, and preferably one made with fresh-picked okra.