Shrimp, Sausage, and a Splash of Hot Sauce: Gumbo and Cajun Identity

By Sasha Coles

[Gumbo] is made from all sorts of meats, fowl, birds, game, fish, etc. cooked on a slow fire in their own juices, with salt, red pepper, and black pepper. The whole is sprinkled with a large amount of dried and powdered sassafras leaves which give an aroma and a certain viscosity to the sauce much like water in which linseed or macaroni has been steeped.
— Anonymous author, Breaux Manuscript

What do you get when you mix tender shrimp, spicy andouille sausage, rice, a splash of hot sauce? I’ll give you a hint. In The Princess and the Frog, a young Tiana helps her dad make this dish in a weathered metal pot. After they finish, Tiana invites her neighbors to enjoy a hot, steaming cup of…gumbo! This dish helps drive Tiana’s dream to open a restaurant in New Orleans. More than that, gumbo offers us a window into the rich transnational history of the southern Louisiana bayou.

Our story begins in the 1600s, when sixty French families formed the colony of Acadia in territory that is now part of Quebec, Eastern Canada’s maritime provinces (Novia Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick), and the state of Maine. This land became embroiled in colonial conflict. The settlers and the Mi’kmaq people native to the area worked together to keep Acadia out of the hands of Great Britain, but France lost the region to the British in 1710. Even so, the Mi’kmaq people and the Acadians refused to proclaim their allegiance to Great Britain, so the British forcibly removed the Acadians. Le Grand Dérangement, or the Great Upheaval, dispersed the Acadians to France, the Caribbean, and Great Britain. As many as four thousand ended up in southern Louisiana. Over the next two centuries, bayou Acadians developed a distinct identity and culinary tradition that we know today as “Cajun.” Cajun people made the best of their refugee status and limited economic resources by developing tight-knit communities and food-based social activities. They helped one another harvest crops and lent a hand building barns, fences, and houses in exchange for a warm meal. Also, in a fun tradition known as Courir de Mardi Gras, people wore masks and traveled around the countryside, asking for ingredients to make a communal gumbo.

Map of Acadian Migration after Removal. Click  HERE  for source.

Map of Acadian Migration after Removal. Click HERE for source.

By the late nineteenth century, gumbo had become a quintessential Cajun dish served at family get-togethers, casual dances, and upscale parties. The central components of gumbo reflected the racial and ethnic diversity that Acadians, or early Cajuns, encountered in the bayou. Members of the Choctaw nation, native to the southeastern United States, introduced the Acadians to tasso (spicy cured pork) and sassafras leaves. When dried and ground up, these leaves make up what’s known as filé powder, a common thickening agent used in gumbo recipes. German immigrants who came to the bayou in the 1720s taught the Acadians how to make sausage and grow rice, two more central features of gumbo. Gumbo’s flavor profile originated with hot pepper bushes, cayenne pepper, and other spices from Haiti and countries in Africa. The name of the dish itself comes from the West African term for okra (gombo), brought to Louisiana by enslaved people from the Central Bontu region. It is possible that Gumbo’s one-pot cooking style originated with enslaved people, runaway slaves, and African immigrants, who frequently combined odds and ends into one vessel when preparing a meal.

An advertisement for Tabasco, 1900. Click  HERE  for source.

An advertisement for Tabasco, 1900. Click HERE for source.

For a little extra spice, many gumbo recipes call for hot sauce. In the 1860s, Edmund McIlhenny produced the first tabasco sauce from peppers he grew in Avery Island, Louisiana. McIlhenny patented the recipe in 1870 and trademarked “Tabasco” in 1906. Tabasco’s key ingredient is crushed Mexican red tabasco peppers, which are aged with vinegar and salt and then strained and bottled. The recipe’s high vinegar content ensures proper preservation and a longer shelf-life. That was particularly important at the turn of the twentieth century, before McIlhenny had access to quick transportation to stores via railroad or truck.

These are the standard elements associated with gumbo, but you can find multiple variations of the dish, thanks to Louisiana’s many ethnic enclaves and great regional diversity. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bayou Cajuns lived alongside Creoles, or people born in Louisiana who descended from European colonists and enslaved and free Africans. White Creoles often made up the urban economic and political elite. Creole gumbo often includes seafood and tomatoes, while the more rustic Cajun recipes rely on a dark roux and more cayenne pepper. You can also get a green vegetable-based gumbo called gumbo z’herbes, which is friendly to the Catholic tradition of meatless Good Friday.

Postcard from Commander's Palace, New Orleans, circa between 1935 and 1950. Click  HERE  for source.

Postcard from Commander's Palace, New Orleans, circa between 1935 and 1950. Click HERE for source.

At first, not many people outside of Louisiana knew about gumbo or other Cajun foods, but major changes in the twentieth century helped spread this cuisine far beyond the South. Advances in compulsory education increased literacy rates amongst Louisianans. Regional newspapers, church groups, and community organizations began to publish and sell cookbooks featuring local recipes. Offshore oil drilling in the 1950s and 60s brought higher wages to working-class Cajun folks, and restaurants targeted that clientele by branding themselves as “Cajun.” Festivals dedicated to gumbo, crawfish, shrimp, and other Cajun food celebrated local culinary culture while stimulating tourism to the area. Celebrity chefs like Emeril DeGrasse and restaurants like Commander’s Palace in New Orleans boosted Cajun food’s legitimacy and popularity. Now, grocery stores all over the country carry frozen Cajun food, prepackaged Cajun seasonings, instant roux, gravy mixes, and pre-made gumbos and rice-and-bean dishes.

 

Disneyland's Blue Bayou Restaurant, 1967. Click  HERE  for source.

Disneyland's Blue Bayou Restaurant, 1967. Click HERE for source.

The day that Disneyland’s New Orleans Square opened in 1966, Mayor Victor H. Schiro of New Orleans congratulated Walt Disney on the success of his romantic re-creation of the Crescent City, complete with jazz music, quaint shops, beautiful architectural features, and southern food. Almost fifty years later, the oak trees, hanging Spanish moss, and twinkling lanterns of Blue Bayou Restaurant continue to transport guests to an “Old South” mansion terrace that overlooks the Louisiana bayou. Most entrees come with a side of signature New Orleans gumbo, complete with sausage, okra, and rice. The next time you hit your gumbo with a shot of Tabasco, you’ll know that you’re ingesting hundreds of years of history.

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Sources

Marcelle A. Bienvenu, Carl A. Brasseaux, and Ryan A. Brasseaux, Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine (2005)

Stanley Dry, “A Short History of Gumbo

Susan Tucker, editor, New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories (2009)