' Skip To Content
New Orleans | Article

Gumbo as History


Many Americans think of the influx of new immigrants to the country — bringing with them new flavors, ingredients and cooking techniques — as a metaphoric "melting pot." In New Orleans, they call it a "gumbo." The quintessential New Orleans bowl of gumbo is a history lesson on the mixed cultures of southern Louisiana.

Bay leaf
Suffering from the lack of proper medical care, the predominantly male New Orleans settlers summoned the Ursuline Sisters (a Catholic order of nuns) from Canada for help in 1727. The Sisters came and planted herb gardens and taught its benefits — among them bay leaves to keep stews from souring and to keep weevils out of the flour.

A New World delight, the tomato became a staple in many European cuisines. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed tomatoes in France and Americans added them to their regular diet in the first half of the 19th century.

A New Orleans banker named Edmund McIlhenny tried his hand at a new business following the Civil War. Planting Central American pepper seeds on Avery Island, Louisiana, McIlhenny developed a spicy sauce he called "Tabasco."

Andouille sausage
Andouille sausage consists of coarse ground pork and spices. French colonists expelled by the British from eastern Canada — Acadia — brought a particularly spicy version with them when then settled in Louisiana. The Acadians have become known as "Cajuns."

Shrimp and other seafood harvested from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico are staples in Louisiana cuisine. Perhaps the most famous is the crawfish (called "crayfish" elsewhere), a small, freshwater relation to the lobster.

German French Bread
Warm French bread — baked by Germans — is often eaten with a steaming bowl of gumbo. In the early 1700s, hundreds of Germans and Swiss farmers were lured to New Orleans in hopes of finding an agricultural paradise. Upon arrival, seeing the French settlers pining for the crusty hot bread and the pastries from back home, the entrepreneurial Germans learned to bake in the French style. Even today the most lauded French bakeries in New Orleans have Swiss and German names.

Rice had been cultivated in Asia and Africa for millennia before being introduced to the Americas. Rice agriculture in the southeastern United States became economically unfeasible with the abolition of slavery, but not before establishing a strain known as "Carolina Gold." Gumbo was traditionally served on Carolina Gold rice.

French peasants used roux, a butter-flour mixture, to thicken sauces, stews, and soups. La Nouvelle-Orléans was founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, a French Canadian who had lived in France before exploring Louisiana with his brother.

Indian File
Powdered sassafras, known as "file," thickens and flavors broth. Native Americans introduced file to the French settlers whose farming techniques and crops were not suited for swampy New Orleans. Had it not been for the native Choctaw Indians who offered their bread, beans, and seasonings to the settlers, the Frenchmen would have starved.

West African slaves brought okra from their native lands to the southern United States. The vegetable, which they called kimgombo, also gave gumbo its name.

In the 1840s, hundreds of Louisianans went off to fight in the Mexican War. They returned with Mexican pepper seeds and a passion for heat. Adding green peppers to sauces and to meats kept foods from spoiling in the era before refrigeration. Eating pickled and raw peppers is still a popular Louisiana bar-room contest.

Support Provided by: Learn More