Find the history of New Orleans in a bowl of gumbo

Cafe du Monde is the place to go for beignets and café au lait.

Pat Snider
Cafe du Monde is the place to go for beignets and café au lait.

Examine a steaming bowl of gumbo and you’ll learn much about the history and culture of New Orleans and the surrounding area of southern Louisiana.

Its ingredients can be as varied as the many groups that settled here, but basically, the dish is a soup or stew with some type of protein (chicken, sausage or seafood); thickened by either a roux (cooked mixture of fat and flour) or okra, or filé (ground sassafras leaves); and flavored with the “holy trinity” (onion, celery and bell pepper).

The name gumbo derives from the West African name for okra, kimgombo, and the dish is most closely associated with slaves who brought the vegetable with them from Africa by way of the West Indies.

On most New Orleans’ restaurant menus, one of two varieties of gumbo may be offered, either Creole or Cajun, reflecting different backstories of this region’s multicultural melting pot.

Creole refers to a mix of French, Spanish, African and Native American, and reflects the early European influence in Louisiana. The area was claimed for the king of France by explorer La Salle in 1682 and the city of New Orleans founded in 1718. It soon became a flourishing port on the Mississippi River and was considered the most northern of France’s Caribbean colonies.

Later it was ceded to Spain, returned to France, and, finally sold to the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

The influence of these early European colonists and their slaves is seen everywhere today from the religion, government system of parishes, festivals like Mardi Gras, jazz music, and the cuisine.

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It won’t be hard to find a chef whipping up a Cajun roux at the New Orleans School of Cooking.

To the gumbo, Creoles bring French cooking techniques, roux made with butter, seafood, tomatoes, and the trinity.

Cajuns share a French heritage but a far different history. After the British conquered French Canada, they expelled the Acadian settlers who occupied what are now the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

In the 1750s, many of these people ended up in French Louisiana where they eschewed the bright lights of New Orleans and settled in the swamp and bayou country south and west of the city.

These Cajuns (from the French word Acadians) were a poor but resourceful people and learned to live off the land, making do with what was on hand. Their cooking is generally described as country-style with a little bit of everything thrown into one pot. To the gumbo, they introduced roux made from oil, not butter; pork sausage; wild game; and red pepper sauce. No self-respecting Cajun would ever use tomatoes in her gumbo.

West Africans introduced okra as a thickener and Native Americans taught the settlers how to use ground sassafras leaves (filé) as a seasoning. Later, immigrant groups including Germans, Italians, and Carib-beans, also added contributions to this culturally- diverse dish, making it a microcosm of the New Orleans’ story.

Gumbo is not the only culinary treat reflecting the city’s historic hodgepodge of cultures.

Jambalaya, for example, is a popular rice dish based loosely on Spanish paella and includes seafood, chic-ken, sausage, tomato and veggies.

Both the Spanish and French are responsible for the quintessential New Orleans’ experience of enjoying beignets (fried dough served with piles of powdered sugar and washed down with café au lait) at the Cafe du Monde.

Italians introduced the muffuletta, a cold cuts and cheese sandwich with a savory olive spread, while Germans taught their sausage-making and meat smoking skills to the Cajuns who added their own seasonings, creating boudin and andouille sausage.

These traditional dishes, unique to the city, have survived and prospered over the years, making a visit to New Orleans a delight for foodies and fans of fine dining from upscale, historic restaurants to down-to-earth, neighborhood po’ boy sandwich joints.

While you can learn about the region’s rich and diverse history at the excellent Louisiana State Museum located in the old Presbytere next to St. Louis Cathedral, it’s much more fun to eat your way through history and culture in a bowl of gumbo.

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