Yum! I’ve been eating gumbo nearly my entire life, cooking it for just a few years less than that. You see, I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana–Cajun country. While I didn’t really enjoy living in Louisiana, it was worth it for one reason, the food. I grew up eating gumbo, sauce picante, pepper steak, and lots of fish. Everything was fresh and bold. My Dad had a friend who brought in high end ingredients for some of the upscale restaurants in town. My favorite cheese as a kindergartener was gouda, back in the early ’80s when most people didn’t know what that was. I didn’t like the smoked stuff either, covered up the delicate flavor profile of the cheese. I was also a happy camper whenever my Dad’s friend would give us one of the pineapples off of his helicopter. It made daily flights to Hawaii for just picked fruit. Spoiled, that’s what I was, and from a very young age, too!
Back to the gumbo. I’ve been making it for years, and rarely do I make it the same way twice. There’s always a little something different: ingredients, spices, preparation, something. I’ve had friends ask for my recipe, but for this dish, it’s just not going to happen. I just go into the kitchen and cook, usually in silence, which is unusual for me. Cooking gumbo is a form of meditation for me. I gather my ingredients, and a few hours later, gumbo! If you ask really nicely, I’ll teach you how to make gumbo, but I won’t write down a recipe for this dish.
In Louisiana, there’s a lot of drama over what makes a ‘gumbo’, but I grew up believing that it’s not gumbo if it doesn’t have okra. So, that’s how I make it. There are actually three ways to thicken a gumbo: okra, roux, or filé powder. I use all three, which I know would be sacrilege to some real Cajuns, but that’s how I roll. I start with a roux, add okra towards the end (along with any seafood if it’s going into the pot), and dust each serving with filé. I use the filé for its earthy taste, not its thickening power.
Funny thing about filé? It was actually a trade secret for a couple hundred years. The local Choctaw Indians had been using the ground up leaves of sassafras trees for many years when the French settlers arrived. The Indians sold the mysterious powder to the settlers but kept its origins secret, which turned out to be the quite humble sassafras. It’s so plentiful that I’d almost consider it a weed!