Over the years, I have written countless stories about gumbo, perhaps the most emblematic dish to come from this part of the world. It is composed of ingredients that represent many of the people who traveled through the Gulf South, some staying and some moving on. Okra was brought to this land by inhabitants of West Africa and was known to them as ngombo, from which the name of this dish derives. The Native Americans gave us file’, a thickener, made from the leaves of sassafras.
The progenitor of gumbo is most likely the French bouillabaisse, the famous seafood stew from Marseille in the south of France. The vegetable base for gumbo and many other dishes in this part of the world, what we now call the Holy Trinity (onions, bell pepper, and celery), derives from the France version, mirepoix, and the Spanish, sofrito.
But gumbo is much more than just a recipe to those who live on the Coast, the part of the world that is split down the middle by the Mississippi River and is often more marsh and wetlands than terra firma. It is an institution and every family has their own recipe, which is of course the only true recipe. I often tell people that gumbo is not a recipe; it’s an opinion.
I have taught many gumbo classes over the years, and always start with a firm warning, take no shortcuts! A good gumbo takes time, and every shortcut you take lessens the final result. Here is the basic recipe:
Chop a package of Conecuh hickory smoked sausage into rounds, then brown in oil, remove, and set aside (do not discard the drippings). Rough chop onions, bell pepper, celery okra, and 2 seeded jalapenos, season with Tony’s and red pepper flakes, then sauté in the same pot for at least 20 minutes. The vegetables should be falling apart. Roast four chicken thighs that have also been seasoned with Tony’s and red pepper flakes, debone them, and set the meat aside. Add the bones to a pot of commercial chicken stock and simmer slowly for an hour, remember to season as you go. Combine the stock and vegetables and simmer for one hour. Add the chicken and sausage. Make a roux with equal parts of oil and flour. The roux should be very dark, only a few minutes away from burning. Carefully add the roux to the gumbo (it will hiss and make a big fuss). Simmer again for 30 minutes. Serve with steamed rice. I prefer to toast the rice in garlic butter before steaming. It may sound odd, but some people prefer potato salad to rice.