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Oct 29, 2007 04:10 PM

Remedial gumbo question [Moved from New Orleans board]

A question from the culturally-deprived in California.

I know that there is file gumbo and there is okra gumbo. Does the twain ever meet? Is there gumbo that contains both file and okra? I'm trying to assess a bowl of gumbo with okra that I sampled this weekend.

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  1. I'm no expert but I'll add that there is also a roux-thickened gumbo. I think there may be rules/preferences, but today it's more about what flavor you like.

    1. Well, I'm a native south my family, we always start a gumbo with a medium colored roux............ingredients usually include some sort of sausage.....possibly some chicken, possibly smoked turkey parts, usually some sort of seafood............but always onion, bell pepper, celery and okra. The filé (which we make from our sassafras trees) is passed after the gumbo is served............some use it, some don't.

      1. My experience is the same as diobahn. Okra and filé both thicken a gumbo, among other things. Use of filé in okra gumbo is a matter of taste.

        1. Another native of South Louisiana - and New Orleans.
          There are many kinds of gumbo, some of which contain okra. Filé is a fine powder made from the dried leaves of the sassafras tree. It is a condiment used at the table, never in the pot, as the gumbo can't be reheated once it has been added. The amount used is a matter of taste.
          However, filé is traditionally not added to gumbos that contain okra and would never have been on the tables in the homes of my city or country relatives when an okra gumbo was being served. We did use filé as a table seasoning for other foods but never okra.

          29 Replies
          1. re: MakingSense

            I agree with MakingSense yet again. Though filé was used as a thickener by the native Choctaw Indians in their cookery, its use in thickening gumbo was restricted to those times when okra was out of season for the settlers. We have options now with year-round produce, but authentically-minded gumbo-thickeners know that filé and okra were not meant to team up in the same pot.

            1. re: JungMann

              That's really interesting history, particularly in that it suggests the Okra/filé issue as primarily a thickening agent. Next time I gumbo-scout I'll be sure to keep this in mind too, thanks!

              1. re: mambaker

                That is exactly what a CA friend with people in LA told me: that okra, file, roux were primarily thickening agents.

              2. re: JungMann

                <<We have options now with year-round produce, but authentically-minded gumbo-thickeners know that filé and okra were not meant to team up in the same pot.>>>

                I would not have the nerve to tell this to my Great Aunt Dora, who has been doing just that for all of her adult years. Now that she is approaching 92, it would be presumptuous on my part to tell her that she has been eating gumbo incorrectly allllllllllll these years. (she'd only reply that I should Go Tell It to the Indians)

                1. re: JungMann

                  That is such interesting history! Especially since my family is all from Louisiana, and has Choctaw Indian roots, thanks!

                2. re: MakingSense

                  I was waiting for your definitive response. Then, what I had was a straight ahead okra gumbo. I had been led to expect a file element, which I didn't detect. Me, I'm a file gumbo chocolatetartguy.

                  I'll return to the place, I just won't have the gumbo again. Now, if only their mustard vinaigrette approaches that of the Bon Ton Cafe.

                  1. re: chocolatetartguy

                    Filé gumbos are the brothy winter gumbos. JungMan is right. That's when hot weather is gone and so is the okra which is a hot weather crop. The wild game has come down the Mississippi Flyway and hunting season is in full swing. So we have duck gumbo and things like that. Gumbo YaYa and Gumbo Z'herbes are other gumbos made without okra that are more popular in winter.

                    Creole Mustard Vinaigrette: 2T Creole Mustard, 1/4 c red wine vinegar, 1 c olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. The mustard and vinegar are whisked together and then the oil is added slowly while whisking to form an emulsion. Is that the one you like?

                    1. re: MakingSense

                      Sounds like it.

                      On both my trips to NO in the mid 90's (on my way home from Tampa business trips), I left late afternoon on a Monday and ate red beans and rice and the aforementioned salad at Bon Ton, which was recommended by a FQ bookseller's attorney brother. Never tasted better before or since and my neighborhoods have been anchored by Chez Panisse and Olivetto.

                      1. re: MakingSense

                        On the styles of gumbo: Are any of the variations based on the ethnicity of the cook?

                        In CA, some of the best gumbos are served in African-American soul food restaurants. These gumbos tend to have a thin, file broth with some combination of chicken, shrimp, sausage and/or crab. No okra in da gumbo, although often offered as a weekend side. I have had such gumbos at Black-owned restaurants whose primary offering were hot dogs, baked potatoes and burritos/fried fish. All those gumbos seemed authentic to me.

                        1. re: chocolatetartguy

                          I think that that's because there are a lot of black people in California who have roots in Louisiana, and so when they open restaurants, they often serve gumbo, because that's what their grandmothers always made.

                          1. re: chocolatetartguy

                            It's not a "filé broth." The filé is the condiment (powdered sassafras leaves) that is added after the gumbo is removed from the heat. Yes, they are completely authentic gumbos, the kind often served both in Creole New Orleans and in Cajun Country. No, you don't see them on the Food Network which seems intent on presenting stereotypes. They are largely served in homes although they are disappearing as people cease to cook traditional, regional foods as they once did. Now they are disappearing from restaurants because people are no longer familiar with them.

                            Ethnicity in Louisiana is as varied as the styles of gumbo. What you might be referring to as an African-American could be a black person with roots in the British, French or Hispanic Caribbean; someone who has significant Choctaw or other Indian heritage; someone from the Creole free black families or with rural slave traditions. Those factors influenced them and their cooking (and their culture) more than their ancestors having been from Africa long before.

                            To just say African-American ignores all the influences that give their heritage its enormous wealth. Before and after slavery, blacks worked in private and restaurant kitchens at all levels and they still do. Haute cuisine, not just soul food. Some of the finest chefs and cooks in the South have always been blacks. We need to give them a great deal more credit than we do for the richness of traditional Southern food, particularly Creole food.

                            That's where some of those gumbos come from. It's a more sophisticated cuisine than people give it credit for.

                            1. re: MakingSense

                              I have been laboring under the assumption that if it wasn't an okra gumbo, it was a file gumbo. Not true?

                              Is the file added by the cook in the kitchen or at the table or both? I don't think I've ever seen file on the table or the counter at soul food places or the fewer upscale NO style restaurants in San Francisco. Pretty sure I've had it, but not sure how it got there.

                              1. re: chocolatetartguy

                                That's probably because you eat gumbo in restaurants; I live in the Bay Area, and on both sides of my family, we always have file on the table when there is gumbo.

                              2. re: MakingSense

                                The tradition of the thinner gumbo lives on in Northern California Black families. It seems to be traditional to make a big pot of gumbo for New Year's. I've heard about this from many friends, co-workers and the janitors in my office building (who I know well since I work late), some of whom have brought me samples.

                                The biggest shame is that my best friend's family was from Lafayette, but I didn't know about gumbo when his mom was living so never sampled her homecooking. He always talked about her "mock shoe," which I now know was macque choix (sp? mangled).

                                1. re: chocolatetartguy

                                  Maybe everyone thinks of filé gumbo because of the old song...Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo...
                                  Yeah, filé is added to gumbo but in recent decades so many of the old traditions have been lost or become muddled. As people have moved away and weren't able to get the Louisiana products they were used to, they stopped using them in the old ways.
                                  It makes sense that you wouldn't see them in San Francisco in much the same way that someone from France wouldn't see French things in Louisiana because cooks there adapted to local products as the food was "creolized." Simple evolution. I'm sure we'll see a lot more because of the Katrina diaspora as South Louisiana cooks use the products local to wherever they have landed.

                                  The old tradition was very much driven by the seasons as JungMan pointed out above. Okra is a hot weather vegetable. When it was gone in the fall, the winter stock-based gumbos used the sassafras leaves (that dried as winter came) as a thickener. Many gumbos are indeed thin and don't fit the stereotype of being chock full of vegetables, seafoods or meats. Roux could be used at any time but not everyone had access to wheat flour and that was a European method of thickening more likely to be used in Creole cooking.
                                  There is always gumbo, not just at New Year's, and the types should vary with the seasons. They were an easy way to feed a lot of people with a little bit of protein. The gumbo I made this week used one chicken, one pound of sausage, and one pound of okra to feed about 15 people. No filé. Cheap eats that could have been served in a very good restaurant if I do say so myself. Hunting season means free ducks from friends so my roux-based duck gumbos will cost next to nothing. I'll put filé on the table for those because I like the flavor with duck. We're starting to have frosts at night so the greens will be good soon and gumbo z'herbes will be back on my stove. And of course turkey gumbo after Thanksgiving. All thin gumbos, none with okra, all with filé. We never called them "filé gumbo," - just duck gumbo, gumbo z'herbes, turkey gumbo, etc.

                                  BTW, it's maque choux. Funny spelling. The dish probably has its roots with the Choctaw Indians in the Atchafalaya Basin. Many people in Louisiana, black and white, are part Choctaw.

                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                    I was about to correct you by saying it's "macque" choux, but I should know better than to second guess your knowledge! I've been misspelling the name for years and now you've inadvertently corrected me.

                                    I do believe, however, that roux is universal to both the Cajuns and Creoles, the difference being the type of fat used and the darkness of the roux. My uncle (a Louisiana mutt, if ever there was one) taught me to make rouxes of different colors depending on what I was making. A blonde to peanut butter roux for gravy and sauce, a medium roux for etoufee and a dark chocolate roux for gumbo. Each type of roux affects the dish in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

                                    1. re: JungMann

                                      I always want to put a "c" in maque choux so I looked it up yet again before I posted - in two places. I'll probably spell it wrong again tomorrow.

                                      Both Creoles and Cajuns use rouxs. Cajuns use animal fat or oil, Creoles use those or butter. If you consider history, animal fat was the common cooking fat with vegetable oils being developed later. Olive oil would have been an expensive import. Butter was expensive and was reserved for fine baking and use as a table spread. Flour was not a local product and was relatively expensive so maybe that's why there are some Cajun gumbos that use no rouxs.
                                      John Folse has an excellent synopsis of rouxs on his Creole/Cajun food site Well worth reading. I have this bookmarked for use when I multiply recipes to make big quantitites.

                                    2. re: MakingSense

                                      Funny about the post TG turkey gumbo. We make turkey jook!

                                2. re: chocolatetartguy

                                  Are you sure there is no okra in the gumbo? In the gumbo made by my Baton Rouge family, by the time the gumbo is ready to eat, there is no evidence that the okra is in there, except for the presence of tiny little seeds in the broth. No actual chuncks of okra are visible. But, its in there.

                                  1. re: sighmesigh

                                    Good question, sighmesigh. I actually went downstairs and looked at the leftovers from the huge vat of chicken/sausage gumbo that we had for guests last night. No, you really couldn't have picked out okra among the other stuff in there. Hard to even see the seeds in that long-cooked gumbo.
                                    The difference is that I used okra in there because I like - and use - okra in that particular gumbo and I can make it year round since I can get good frozen okra (yeah, I use the frozen stuff.) Not that many years ago people couldn't get okra except in season, so they didn't use it for most of the year.
                                    I make several gumbos in which I don't use okra. Tradition. Preference. Other means of thickening. A belief that all gumbos don't have to be thick. Even filé doesn't thicken gumbo that much when it's added at the table. It does add a flavor that I like and some mouth feel.

                                    But you are very right that just because you can't see it, doesn't mean that it wasn't there. But conversely, just because it's gumbo, doesn't mean there is okra in there or that there should be.

                                    1. re: MakingSense

                                      Yeah, you right. I tell my texan friends, that everyone's gumbo, etouffee and jambalaya are different, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot different. Those differences don't make the dish any more or less authentic. It just makes it more interesting.

                                      1. re: sighmesigh

                                        To complicate - or confuse - matters even more, I checked a wonderful old 1978 cookbook, Creole Feast - 15 Master Chefs of New Orleans Reveal Their Secrets, by Nathaniel Burton, the chef at the old Caribbean Room at the Pontchartrain Hotel, for years one of the best in the city. It has recipes from the best of New Orleans' famous black Creole chefs. Especially because chocolatetartguy asked about soul food restaurants in California. And you're talking about recipes in Texas. And I now cook in Washington, DC.
                                        Their gumbo recipes were all over the place. In one essay, Raymond Thomas describes what he personally does, adds, leaves out, prefers, etc., and why. Others obviously disagree because the other recipes do exactly what he doesn't do.
                                        So sighmesigh is exactly right about that individuality - as long as gumbo stays true to its roots. I still hate to see lobster or other non-Louisiana foods in gumbo.

                                        Henry Carr of Pascal's Manale's used okra plus 1 teaspoon of filé and did cook the gumbo for an hour after it was added.
                                        Raymond Thomas who cooked at Commander's, Pittari's, and Brennan's used roux, only 1/4 pound of okra and no filé for his seafood gumbo.
                                        Leah Chase of Dooky Chase's used a loose roux plus okra but no filé in her Creole gumbo which uses chicken wings, sausage, beef, oysters, shrimp, and crabs.
                                        The late Austin Leslie of Chez Helene used roux but no okra, in his gumbo of ham, sausage, crabs and shrimp, adding filé at the end in the kitchen, before bring the pot just back to the boil.
                                        Burton himself used only okra with neither roux nor filé.

                                        These chefs cooked at other places and also, in the years that they were the head chefs in the fine restaurants in New Orleans, would have trained many others, who would have made changes of their own, and trained others. All of these chefs and plain cooks would have worked at places fine and not so fancy, and many would have moved far from New Orleans. So it's easy to see why there would be a great number a variations on the common recipes for gumbo.

                                      2. re: MakingSense

                                        <Not that many years ago people couldn't get okra except in season, so they didn't use it for most of the year. >>>

                                        There are many families..........mine included..........who can okra and tomatoes in season. Thus, we have it on demand. And as I stated previously.............we grind our own filé.

                              3. re: MakingSense

                                Why can't you reheat it once you've put the file on it?

                                1. re: bbqboy

                                  The filé gets slimy and stringy. Just not a nice texture.

                                    1. re: bbqboy

                                      I'm a chef in PA...and used to work at a Cajun/Creole place with a chef/owner from the swamps. We made a lotta gumbo. He never used okra, nor did he offer file at the table. I'm comfortable now saying that gumbo seems very much to be a dish that is different from household to household. Obviously there are certain standards to maintain...but I guess my question is: were we doing anything wrong here?

                                      Our gumbo: "mahogany" roux made with oil, not butter. Some combo of duck, andouille, crab, shrimp...trinity, heavy seasoning. Overall cooking time....usually about 4-5 hrs for 6gals.

                                      1. re: Major504

                                        Sounds like a Cajun gumbo with that dark oil roux. Not every gumbo has okra or filé, but when the roux is that dark, its thickening power is reduced and I tend to believe that a darker roux demands either okra or, per MakingSense's preference with duck, filé.

                                        1. re: JungMann

                                          I think that dark oil roux is what I see in the Bay Area. The broth is dark, dark brown and there is usually a slick of fat on top. Tastes great though.

                              4. Now I need some GUMBO! This thread is bringing on the hunger pangs! I make it with a dark roux and okra. Another variable in Cajun/Creole cuisine is the differences in jambalaya from eastern and western Louisiana. Maybe an expert could comment on that.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: WCchopper

                                  Why don't you start a new thread on that subject since it is so different from the gumbo question?

                                  BTW, I don't use roux in my okra gumbo. Neither do a lot of people. Hungry Celeste thinks that is close to a mortal sin. A lot of people agree with her. Enjoy your gumbo!

                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                    My comment was intended to make the point that regional differences within Louisiana from dish to dish are not necessarily "correct" or not.Hence the rich variety. The right way to make it is usually how your own mama made it, so I try not to be too critical about "a lot of people's" home cooking.

                                    1. re: WCchopper

                                      <The right way to make it is usually how your own mama made it, so I try not to be too critical about "a lot of people's" home cooking.<<<

                                      Most south Louisiana cooks would agree with you...............obviously, I should not share too many recipes on this board.