Those of us lucky enough to be raised by generations of Louisiana folk have been brought up eating gumbo. Yesterday, I took lucky to another level when I was asked to be a judge at Valero‘s annual fundraising event benefitting several local charities. Valero raised awareness and over a million dollars for organizations like Second Harvest and Special Olympics with their “Valero’s Got Talent” theme. When I arrived, blue-jumpsuited workers were milling around the gumbo tent sampling more than a dozen offerings. I joined judges Joseph Grey of Don’s Seafood and Ryan Gall, Executive Chef at TPC Louisiana as well as Eliza Eugene, who partners with Saints wide receiver Marques Colston (frequently found in the endzone at Saints games) in Eugene Colston Realty.
We judges were secreted away to a private room where numbered bowls of gumbo and evaluation sheets waited. Gumbo was introduced in the 1700′s and the first recorded gumbo “contest” was in 1803 when Governor Pierre Clément de Laussat presented 24 varieties at a soirée. The dish is normally served over rice (though many in Lafayette prefer potato salad) but judging a contest means no rice.
Creating a gumbo is like taking a culinary journey through Louisiana history. Rice cultivation was introduced by people on the slave trade ships in the early 1700′s. Germans brought sausage-making in 1721. By the 1760′s, Canary Islanders introduced cayenne and Africans brought okra by 1800. Gumbo also combines cooking practices from French, Spanish, Italian and Choctaw people and may even have gotten its name from the Choctaw “kombo,” their word for filé, a sassafras powder sometimes used as a thickener. The name may also have come from ki ngombo, the Bantu word for okra, a rival gumbo thickener. People have been fighting over okra -vs- filé since forever and perhaps this Choctaw/African naming issue is where it all began.
Our gumbos were roux-thickened (a French tradition) with some choosing a thicker blonde roux while others went as dark as they could, cooking the flour and fat until just before it burned. There were no seafood or exotic meats, only traditional chicken and andouille, but some added greens or other distinguishing flavor enhancers. As we tasted each bowl and marked our papers, I realized I was comparing them all to the very best gumbo I know – my family’s recipe. Turns out we were all doing that – using our family traditions as the high-mark, looking for our childhood memories in a bowl.
Gumbo is the perfect culinary metaphor of Louisiana’s history and culture. As I’ve said before, it’s like the American “melting pot” concept but each ingredient added is meant to retain its original flavor, just like the many peoples who share this place. And at it’s base is a “holy trinity,” a sauté of onions, celery and green pepper cooked to glassy. This trinity binds the dish like the Saints bind the Who Dat Nation. In the 1970′s, Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender inspired the Senate cafeteria to add the dish to their menu as local chefs Paul Prudhomme and Justin Wilson introduced the rest of the country to gumbo, the official dish of Louisiana.
Before leaving, I sampled a fried and powdered-sugar-dusted Oreo and a snoball – another of Louisiana’s tastiest treats. I was sent home with a go-container full of the winning bowl of gumbo which had a dark roux and greens and reminded us all a little of our mom’s best. Here’s hoping Valero needs me on the judge’s panel next year…
If you’d like to support local charities like Second Harvest while eating some our regions best culinary treats – the Harvest the Music Wednesday concert series is back! I hope to see you there for great food and music.