Gumbo – A Dish That Traveled Across Continents

Dark seafood gumbo topped with chopped green onion and shrimp in a white square bowl set on a dark wood table.

At Felix’s BBQ With Soul, we describe our food as “a confluence of Cajun and ‘que”, and that’s never clearer than when you take a look at our menu! You’ll see the Felix’s Pit menu, made up of barbeque favorites smoked with hickory wood right next to our cajun food menu that features dishes like shrimp and grits, oxtails, and seafood gumbo.

Gumbo, as we know it today, is also a confluence of various cultures, namely West African, Native American, and European. Keep reading to discover how it all came together to create the dish we know and love today. 

A West African Culinary Tradition

As seems to be a pattern for a lot of Southern favorites, gumbo’s origin is not Southern at all. This dish comes from West Africa, and even its name was derived from “gombo”, a word for “okra” in many West African languages.

It’s no surprise that gumbo’s name came from a word for okra, considering that it’s an integral part of the dish. The West African version of this dish has the consistency of stew, contains fish and shellfish, and is thickened with okra. In fact, the earliest recorded gumbo recipes included okra as a main ingredient. 

It was the transatlantic slave trade that brought West Africans to what is Louisiana, and they brought with them okra, a plant that is not native to the Americas. This helped them preserve their culinary tradition and was the beginning of gumbo, a dish that is now a fundamental part of Southern cuisine.

A Blend of Cultures

After being brought to the Americas, the ingredients included in gumbo began to be influenced by Native American and European cultures in addition to the traditions of West Africa. 

The Native American contribution to the dish was the introduction of filé powder for added flavor and as a thickening agent. Filé is dried and ground sassafras leaves often used by the Choctaws and other tribes located in Southern Louisiana.

As for the European influence, this can be seen in the eventual use of roux as a thickening agent rather than filé or okra. Roux is an important part of French culinary tradition, but the roux used in gumbo is much darker than the original French roux. It’s made in a skillet by browning flour in oil or fat until it reaches the preferred color.

Gumbo From the 19th Century to Now

Although gumbo would have been in the South long before this, written references to gumbo didn’t begin to appear until the early 19th century. One of these references includes an 1817 article in the Petersburg, VA, newspaper, American Star. Okra is described in the article, along with two recipes. One recipe describes a stew made with cut okra, tomatoes, onions, butter, salt, and pepper. The other recipe describes a stew of okra and water dressed with butter. The article mentions that this is called “gambo”.

Later, in 1824, Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-Wife included a recipe for “Gumbo–A West India Dish”, which mentioned stewing okra in water and serving it with melted butter. The New England Farmer included an article about okra in 1831 that mentioned “a celebrated dish, called Gombo, is prepared in those countries where okra is grown, by mixing with the green pods, ripe tomatoes, and onions; all chopped fine, to which are added pepper and salt, and the whole stewed.” 10 years later, Webster’s Dictionary included this definition of gumbo: “ A dish of food made of young capsules of ocra, with salt and pepper, stewed and served with melted butter.” By the mid-19th century, gumbo had cemented its strong association with Louisiana.

In the period just before the Civil War, gumbo recipes including filé began to be seen in print. One of these recipes includes a “Filet gumbo” in Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book, published in 1857.

By the 1880s roux was finally introduced to gumbo. The New Orleans City featured an article about gumbo in July 1880. Following this article, a “lady who is a very competent authority in such matters” sent in a letter that included a recipe for a “genuine Creole method of making gumbo”, which included instructions describing how to cook roux.

The rest, as they say, is history and roux-based gumbo has now become the most popular form of this well-loved dish.

Authentic Cajun Food in Southern California

This article is by no means a complete history of gumbo, but we hope that this short history will make the next time you eat gumbo just a little more enjoyable, knowing its deep history. We also hope that you’ll stop by one of our locations and order a bowl of gumbo from our cajun food menu.

When you’re looking for authentic cajun, soul food, or BBQ in San Diego County and Lake Elsinore, look no further than one of our four locations. At Felix’s BBQ With Soul, our goal isn’t just to provide our guests with great food, but with the Southern hospitality that should go along with Southern food as well. When you step into any of our locations, our goal is to make sure you feel just as comfortable and welcome as you would at home.

Visit us today! You can even order ahead of time online. We hope we’ll see you soon!