23 February 2011 ~ 1 Comment

The “O” Factor in Gumbo

With Mardi Gras coming up (March 8), there’s the temptation to focus on the Gumbo factor. Gumbo’s gotten big in DC and Gumbo aficionados are getting picky. The “Gumbo police” reports range from critical assessments, “Top 10” lists, blogging gumbo, to diners calling their mothers and grandmothers on their cell phones to report “Your gumbo is still the best.”

Gumbo gets made in DC and a whole lot of other places including NOLA and SC.  Zora Neale Hurston went to New Orleans to “get made.” That means something different.   She was seeking the best teachers in the root religion many call voodoo. Like others on that path, Zora was searching for the legendary “queen of conjure” Marie Leveaux and her spiritual descendants. When it came to folklore and anthropology, Zora believed in total immersion. Even when I was in New Orleans and Algiers (where she lived for 4 months), there’s still the buzz about Zora trying to catch stray cats in the middle of the night for her training. She publishes a “formulae” she learned from one of her teachers in Mules and Men that includes “filet of gumbo.” [Don’t try this at home or anywhere for that matter.]

Jessica B. Harris

So the diner wonders, “How would you filet a bowl of gumbo?” Culinary historian and author Jessica Harris set the record straight at the February Food & Folklore event. Gumbo is okra.

“Our American word okra comes from the Igbo language of Nigeria, where the plant is referred to as okuru. It is the French word for okra, gombo, that resonates with the emblematic dishes of southern Louisiana known as gumbo. Although creolized and mutated, the world gumbo harks back to the Bantu languages, in which the pod is known as ochingombo or guingombo. The word clearly has an African antecedent, as do the soupy stews that it describes, which are frequently made with okra.”

High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America by Jessica B. Harris

Gumbo in New Orleans means one thing; in South Carolina lowcountry, it’s something else. Looking in Chef Charlotte Jenkins’ cookbook Gullah Cuisine: By Land and By Sea, she calls it “Okra Gumbo” – doubling up. There’s no butter or flour in the recipe for the roux. It calls for a pound of gumbo/okra.

Jessica Harris re-prints “Gumbs—A West India Dish” from the 1824 edition of Virginia House-wife in High On the Hog. The only ingredient is gumbo/okra. But there’s butter.

For Zora okra was a constant friend fried for her legendary Harlem parties with some fried shrimp, or growing in her garden when she left the city to complete the manuscript for Mules and Men in Eatonville, Florida.

Okra, when done right, has been a thickening agent for stews etc., or fried or pickled satisfies the crunch craving. There’s nothing worse than overcooking gumbo/okra. In her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora gives divine warning about the sins of gumbo/okra:

God don’t eat okra, okra when cooked is slick and slimy, i.e., God does not like slickness or crooked ways.

Eatonville's New Year's "Black Gumbo"

Eatonville Restaurant will be serving both the regular and vegan gumbos before, during and after Mardi Gras even though Chef Garret Fleming is taking a sweet potato and crawfish chowder turn for the Abita Beer Mardi Gras Dinner Party (March 1). The New Year’s Eve “Black Gumbo” with duck was an extra treat. I’m sure Chef Leah Chase of Dooky Chase is in her New Orleans restaurant kitchen preparing vats of her regular gumbo and will dish out her signature gumbo-z’herbes (green gumbo) for Holy Thursday. There’s no okra in the green gumbo. I suppose after March 8, newbies have 40 days to change their slick and slimy ways.

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Michon Boston is a “foodlorist” (ISO good food with a side of good story).  She’s a writer/producer currently working on a media project titled, “The Church Lady Cake Diaries.

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