There was a time when I thought of Southern food as a fixed thing. Certain recipes, ingredients, and ways of cooking were distinctively Southern, and others were not. Sure, I had a sense that dishes had evolved over time and were influenced by many different cultures along the way. What I hadn't quite realized was how quickly those iconic foods could change and the range of different forces that impelled the shifts.
Gumbo is a good example. As our previous installment explored, it's a dish with deep roots in the South and even deeper roots in African foodways. Gumbo in America evolved slowly over the course of three centuries, taking on new forms and variations as it went. And then, suddenly, in the 1980s, it was transformed almost overnight, and that transformation by all accounts was due to a single very influential chef.
The Emergence of Roux
Let's pick up the story in the 1880s. By then, cooks in New Orleans were making three primary varieties of their famous stew: okra-based gumbo févi, gumbo filé thickened with powdered sassafras, and gumbo aux herbes. The last variant, often called gumbo z'erbes, is made with any combination of greens—mustard, beet, turnip, spinach—and it was a popular Lenten dish.
It was only toward the end of the 19th century that the ingredient that's perhaps most closely associated with gumbo today made its way into the pot: roux. A staple of French cuisine, it's a blend of flour and fat (usually oil for gumbo) cooked together, used as a thickening agent and—particularly in its darker Creole and Cajun variants—as a flavoring agent, too.
Adding roux to gumbo was definitely a Louisiana innovation, and it seems to have been used first with oyster gumbos. In July 1880, after the New Orleans City Item ran an article on gumbo, they received a letter from "a lady who is a very competent authority in such matters" instructing them on the "genuine Creole method of making gumbo." She provided instructions for a standard chicken and okra gumbo with no roux, then followed it with a recipe for gumbo filé with oysters. It begins "make a roux and brown the ingredients as in the other recipe."
Lafcadio Hearn's La Cuisine Creole (1885) includes eight different gumbo preparations, three of which are for oyster gumbo. One of them opens like this: "Fry a tablespoon of flour in a tablespoon of lard. Let it brown slowly so as not to scorch." Though not called out by name, that's a roux. It's added to two quarts of boiling oyster liquor along with onions, ham, and parsley. The oysters themselves are introduced at the very end along with a half cup of filé powder.
In 1894, the New Orleans Times-Democrat declared, "the roux is the basis of everything good in the creole culinary line, such as gumbo, both okra and filé, daube stew, those wonderful fricassees, etc." Still, it took a good half a century to become universal in New Orleans-style gumbo. The 1922 Picayune Creole Cookbook included recipes for roux-free gombo filé, gombo févi, and gombo aux herbes, though its oyster gumbo and shrimp gumbo both begin with a roux made from a tablespoon for lard or butter and two tablespoons of flour. It wasn't until the 1950s that roux became the standard in Creole gumbo recipes—and in Creole cooking in general.
"The roux has become kind of emblematic of New Orleans cooking," says Lolis Eric Elie, a former columnist for the Times-Picayune and the script editor for HBO's Treme. "I was talking to one of my aunts about how she made her spaghetti, and she started with a roux. It makes no sense 30 years later but that's what she did."
Roux was such a kitchen staple that in 1956 the I-ron Pot Packing Company of Ville Platte, Louisiana, introduced a line of instant roux. "Now," its advertisements promised, "anyone can make gumbo, stew, fricassee, sauce piquante, spaghetti, dishes, gravy, dressings, in a fraction of the former time." I-Ron Pot Roux was advertised in New Orleans newspapers for more than a decade, and other brands, like Tony's Instant Creole Roux, are still on the market today.
By this time, the New Orleans style of gumbo had become standardized, too, and it was a seafood gumbo made with a light brown roux. In 2012, Elie wrote about his memories of gumbo in Smithsonian Magazine, and he noted, "My mother's gumbo is a pleasing brown shade, roughly the color of my skin. It is slightly thickened with a roux. . . . When served over rice, my mother's gumbo is roughly the consistency of chicken and rice soup."
Poppy Tooker, a New Orleans food writer, teacher, and television personality, describes her family's gumbo in almost the same way: "[My aunt] would make gumbo a lot at my grandmother's house," she recalls. "It was usually seafood gumbo. We never had chicken gumbo--never, never--when I was growing up. It was mostly okra gumbo that I remember."
That same style of gumbo could be found in high-end restaurants and in casual neighborhood cafes, too. It had become the signature dish of New Orleans.
Enter Paul Prudhomme
Things could stay the same for only so long. Tom Fitzmorris, the long-time New Orleans restaurant critic and host of "The Food Show" on WSMB 1350 AM, witnessed first-hand a revolution in the city's culinary culture, which he chronicled in his memoir Hungry Town: a Culinary History of New Orleans (2010). By the 1970s, he recalls, "New Orleans classic restaurant cuisine had become motionless." Every fine-dining restaurant in town served an almost identical menu of traditional French Creole classics: shrimp rémoulade, trout meuniere, and, of course, soup-like seafood gumbo.
Enter a large, bearded, charismatic Cajun named Paul Prudhomme. Prudhomme grew up a hundred miles west of New Orleans on a farm outside of Opelousas in St. Landry Parish. The youngest of 13 children, he learned to cook by helping his mother tend their wood-fired stove and using fresh herbs gathered by his father and brothers out in the swamps.
At the age of 17, Prudhomme opened a hamburger joint called Big Daddy O's Patio, which lasted all of nine months. Next, he headed west to Colorado, where he bounced around various big restaurant kitchens before returning to Louisiana in the early 1970s. While working in several Creole restaurants in New Orleans, he got to know Ella Brennan, and in 1976 she invited him to take over the kitchen at Commander's Palace. It was the first time an American had been executive chef at the century-old high-Creole restaurant, and it was a turning point in New Orleans cuisine.
"We threw out the interchangeable French menu every New Orleans restaurant had had for a million years," Ella Brennan told Tom Fitzmorris. "We replaced it with local everything." Out went the trout amandine, the original almonds and beurre noir supplanted by local pecans and a Cajun-seasoned brown sauce. The crab meat Imperial was sent to the showers, replaced by crab and corn bisque.
Perhaps the most significant change was the gumbo. "The gumbo I did at Commander's was a roux gumbo," Prudhomme told Brett Anderson of the Times-Picayune in 2005. "To my knowledge, it had never been done before. It was chicken and andouille, down-and-dirty Cajun. It was what Mama used to do."
Andouille, a spicy, coarse-grained smoked pork sausage, is a staple of Cajun cuisine, and these days you can't swing a dead cat in New Orleans without hitting a couple links of it. In 1976, Prudhomme had to drive out into the country and buy it from a guy he had known since childhood.
Chef Prudhomme continued popularizing what became known as "nouvelle Creole" when he helped the Brennan family open Mr. B's Bistro in 1979. Shortly after, he set out on his own to open K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, where his blackened red fish—encrusted in Cajun seasonings, dipped in butter, and seared in a smoking-hot cast iron skillet--became not just a local but a national sensation. It thrust Cajun cooking, up till then an obscure regional cuisine, into the limelight for the first time.
In an era when most chefs worked anonymously in the back of the house, Prudhomme's celebrity was unprecedented. He appeared on magazine covers and national TV shows, hosted his own cooking program, and produced a line of home videos. His first cookbook, Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen (1984), was a best-seller, and Prudhomme pioneered the role of chef-entrepreneur, too, with his own line of spices called Magic Seasoning Blends.
In just a few short years, Paul Prudhomme and the many cooks he mentored and inspired reshaped the entire culinary landscape of New Orleans. "He really changed a lot of our food," Poppy Tooker says. "It was vastly different once he got here."
Lolis Elie agrees. "Paul Prudhomme did in part create a kind of pan-Louisiana cuisine," he says, "and trying to draw a line between Cajun and Creole can be difficult...When Prudhomme comes on the scene New Orleans became infused with Louisiana food. Those boundaries became porous."
Perhaps no dish was more altered than gumbo. "[Prudhomme's] thick, dark-roux chicken-andouille gumbo was dramatically different from the lighter seafood gumbos served in most restaurants," Fitzmorris writes in Hungry Town "Within a few years, most gumbos in hip restaurants around town were in the robust, new style."
There's now a divide between gumbo as it's found in restaurants and the way it's cooked in private homes by locals using their family's traditional recipes. "Restaurant gumbos are thicker and darker than I grew up on," Elie says. "And thicker and darker than those found in the homes of most black New Orleanians."
Poppy Tooker, a white New Orleanian, notes the same thing. "The roux has gotten out of control," she says. "Gumbo is a soup. It's not meant to be a stew. But very often now gumbos have so much roux and they're so thick they're almost a stew."
Thanks in large part to Prudhomme's books and television appearance, his style of gumbo has now spread well outside of Louisiana, becoming the standard for what many diners across the South consider to be "authentic gumbo."
The Importance of the Roux
When Poppy Tooker makes a roux the traditional Creole way, she begins with half a cup of oil and a full of cup flour, and she has a trick for getting the color just right.
"Unless your grandmother or somebody taught you, you don't know to do this," she says. "I let the oil and flour cook until it is sort of a milk chocolate brown, and then I add the onions. This is the single most important thing I know of when you're making a roux."
Like most New Orleans gumbo-makers, Tooker uses the "holy trinity" of onions, celery, and bell peppers, but she staggers their introduction to the pot. "If you add all three of them at the same time," she says, "the roux is going to get lighter."
That's because the vegetables contain a lot of moisture, which slows down browning. "You add the onions first by themselves," she says, "Then what happens is like a magic trick. The roux gets darker, a bittersweet chocolate color. The natural sugars in the onions come out, and then you can add the celery and bell pepper."
For Tooker, the purpose of the chocolate-colored roux is less about thickening and more about adding a rich, roasted flavor. "My gumbo is not thick," she says. "I add enough stock so that my gumbo is a soup."
That's a different approach than Paul Prudhomme's. Cajun cooks, he writes in Chef Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen, "view roux as being essentially of two types—medium brown and black." The lighter roux is used with dark meats, the black roux with light meats and, especially, in gumbo.
Prudhomme perfected a technique of making black roux rapidly over high heat, and he notes that it takes practice not to scorch the flour. He uses equal parts oil and flour, and he waits until the oil is smoking hot before gradually whisking the flour in with a long handled whisk. ("Cooked roux is called Cajun napalm in my restaurant's kitchen," he notes. "so be very careful to avoid splashing it on you.") He whisks the blended mixture constantly until it goes from chocolate brown to black, which only takes about four minutes. Then, he removes the pot from the heat, adds all the vegetables at once, and stirs until the roux stops getting darker.
These days, thanks to his cookbooks and his influence on younger chefs, Prudhomme's thick version with its black roux and spicy andouille has come to define New Orleans gumbo. That concerns traditionalists like Lolis Elie. "A lot of people moving to New Orleans are interested in immersing themselves in local cuisine," Elie says. "For most of them the standard gumbo is restaurant gumbo, and the way to learn is to get one of the more recent cookbooks by Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse."
Much of New Orleans cuisine, he continues, is being driven by "chefs who are not natives who learned to make gumbo from chefs not from New Orleans, who [in turn] learned to make gumbo from chefs not from New Orleans. That dialogue between the home cook and the restaurant chef is weakened in this chain of students of the cuisine coming from other places."
This is a phenomenon that is hardly unique to New Orleans. Many of the chefs who have become famous in noted Southern food cities like Charleston and Nashville are actually not from those cities at all. They certainly do look to the food traditions of their adopted cities, but their styles and preparations are shaped to a larger degree by the echo chamber of the tightly-knit culinary industry.
"Think about a dish like shrimp and grits, which is a Carolina dish," Elie says. "If you go to restaurants all over New Orleans, I would not be surprised to see a Creole shrimp and grits dish. The components are all part of New Orleans cuisine, but it ain't our food."
Justin Devillier, the chef/owner at New Orleans's La Petite Grocery, has also noted the way the restaurant chefs have blurred culinary lines, and he points to gumbo and shrimp and grits, too. "I think you see a lot of restaurants sharing these ideas across the South," he says "The last time I went to Charleston I had a really really good Louisiana roux, and you come to New Orleans and you get shrimp and grits."
Devillier has an interesting blend of an insider's and an outsider's perspective on Louisiana gumbo. He was born and raised in Dana Point, California, an Orange County beach town, but his father was a native Louisianan whose family roots in the state date back to the 1760s. "My grandparents live in southeast Louisiana," Devillier says. "So I spent a lot of summers coming out. I grew up eating hogs head cheese and boudin, kind of the whole gamut of Louisiana fare."
So he was quite familiar with Cajun cooking when he arrived in New Orleans in 2003. Devillier bounced around a few notable kitchens like Bacco and Stella before landing at La Petite Grocery in 2004. He helped re-establish the restaurant after Hurricane Katrina, was named executive chef in 2007, and with his wife, Mia, took over ownership in 2010.
When it comes to gumbo, Devillier's approach is ecumenical, blending his own family's traditions with New Orleans restaurant styles. "I learned to make it from my uncles, who learned it from my grandmother," he says. "You get up into some of the small towns in Louisiana and it's like The Butter Battle Book. When they teach you to make a gumbo they teach you this is how you do it, and it's the only way you do it.
But Devillier studied Paul Prudhomme's cookbooks, too, and believes in "having the influence of what's on the market and also not being shy about changing things and trying to make things a little bit better."
These days, Devillier says he's not so opinionated when it comes to gumbo. "At the end of the day," he says, "There are really just a couple of strong techniques you have to abide by. After that, it's open to all interpretations."
His two key techniques are "being able to make a really nice roux and being able to make a really nice stock."
For the roux, he advises using a good oil that can stand up to the heat, like canola, sunflower, or safflower. "I always try to get it as dark as I possibly can without burning it," Devillier says, but he doesn't rush it. "I usually start over a pretty high heat and I'll get everything kind of really going and agitate it all, then I'll turn down to medium-low or medium. I'll sort of judge it as I go and I'll change the temperature based on that. You want it to develop its color while you're stirring it. You don't want it to develop its color on the bottom of the pan."
As for the stock, Devillier says, you must "be able to pull flavor from whatever ingredients you are using. You have to be able to get those real rich flavors into the broth. That way, when you do incorporate your roux, you make a base or gravy that will determine how delicious [the finished gumbo] is."
From that point, he might incorporate any number of ingredients depending upon what's fresh that day—okra and greens, duck and andouille, shrimp and crab, even a little leftover turkey after Thanksgiving.
"A friend of mine made an oyster and bacon gumbo recently that was really good," Devillier says. "Gumbo is really whatever you want to do with it."
The Future of Gumbo
With younger chefs like Devillier starting to feel less bound by traditional precepts, it will be interesting to see where gumbo goes in the future. The closed culinary loop of today's chef-driven culture is indeed blurring the regional lines that once demarcated the many sub-genres of Southern cuisine. At the same time, this crosstalk allows diners to experience a much wider array of novel and delicious dishes than they could just a few decades ago.
The restaurant world needs crusading outsiders like Paul Prudhomme, who come into a flagging culinary scene and inject new excitement and energy. It needs traditionalists, too, who pull back on the reins and keep us from forgetting how it used to be done in the past.
I can't honestly say that there is a single proper way to make gumbo or even three proper ways. Okra or filé, light brown or black roux, seafood or chicken: they're all wonderful variants that have evolved over the span of centuries, transforming a simple stew into something rich, personal, and wonderful. And all of them are delicious.