Cooking Up a Gumbo

Okra.

Le Bon Chef has a character — Lacey Trelone — from Louisiana. New Orleans. Creole. With a grandmother who cooks (Who doesn’t have such a grandmother?). 

In one scene Lacey makes a great gumbo using her grandmother’s recipe. We love the scene because we love gumbo. If you haven’t tried it, I suggest you hie to New Orleans to get you some. What the heck is gumbo? Well, it’s sort of a soup, but not. It’s got a secret ingredient that gives it a somewhat jelly-like consistency. Thick and rich.

The source of the secret ingredient is a controversy on the level of all great divides currently threatening peace in the U.S.: liberal vs. conservative, republican vs. democrat, mask vs. no-mask. You get the idea; it’s strong stuff. 

What is the controversy? Some people use okra as the thickening agent in their gumbo, others insist on filé. And what exactly is filé? It’s a powder made by pulverizing dried leaves of the sassafras tree. You will recall sassafras as the provider of the root of root beer fame. Used to be anyway. It was outlawed a few years back. Apparently it has carcinogenic powers and so today all our root beer is made with artificial root. Sad. Another great tradition down the tubes.

Filé.

At any rate, your gumbo can be thickened with either okra, the more traditional, West African route, or filé, the upstart Choctaw route, developed sometime in the 1800s. For the full history, check out the details at Serious Eats.

I recently came across a gumbo story via the Wilma Theater. You will recall the Wilma as Philadelphia’s premier theater. Its fantastic productions are best described as spectacle (as in Broadway), but at the same time intellectually stimulating (as in Off-Broadway). If you love live theater, you must hie to Philly when the Wilma opens back up. Right now, as is the case with most theaters across this fair land, it’s dark. 

In lieu of live performance, the Wilma is serving up videos on line of play performances. It’s the best they can do in these dark times. Along with their full productions, they have a thing called Hothouse Shorts, so named after their Hothouse Company of resident artists. Actors, directors, writers, and the like.

One of the Hothouse shorts currently being featured is “The Lagniappe Project”. Here’s the description: “performer Melanye Finister shares her mother’s recipe for Creole gumbo with residents from Northern Children’s Services, attempting to find community and comfort.”

Whoa! That sounds like something our Lacey Trelone would do. Lacey’s got a heart full of soul. She’s got spit and fire and love. And she’s got a great recipe for gumbo passed down from her grandmother, like Malenye Finister’s Lagniappe Project.

Take a look at the short, try out the recipe, report back here to tell us how it turned out!

I’m hoping The Wilma opens back up soon. I love traveling down to Philly for an evening of fabulous theater. I’m with them all as they strive to stay sane in these dark times. (Who doesn’t so strive?)

We here at Le Bon Chef Central is likewise striving. We’re doing a lot of research to bring authenticity to the film. Running into Malenye Finister’s gumbo story is an example of what we look for. What a bright spot in our pandemic-blighted dark time it is. Carry on Hothouse Company!

To follow Le Bon Chef’s progress as we strive for authenticity (and investor dollars of course), sign up for the e-newsletter mailing list.

9 Comments

  • Beautifully written and makes me want to make a nice gumbo. I’m an okra fan in many forms but gumbo is the real deal. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Reply
    • Thanks for weighing in. We want to see who’s cooking with what.One for okra!

      Reply
  • Acadiana transplant to North Carolina weighing in. Okra and tomatoes? Awesome. Fried okra? Can’t get enough. Okra in a gumbo in Cajun country? Might as well tell the Hatfields that the Mccoys are coming for dinner.
    Chicken and sausage gumbo is a staple of south central Louisiana anytime the temps drop below 40, and is always seasoned with filé. Does it thicken my gumbo? Not really. We sprinkle filé on a finished bowl and it adds a nice earthy flavor. In my family we typically don’t use enough to change the texture of the gumbo.
    In Lafayette, we have another battle: my family thickens gumbo with ‘gumbo potato salad’, which is just regular potato salad without celery & onion. I’ve met people in central Louisiana that add hard boiled eggs. We’re all playfully defensive among the Cajuns and Creoles for what is and isn’t allowed, but terribly easy to judge when it comes from somewhere else.

    Reply
    • Oh, wow! Great information here. Thank you for this. Yes, I imagine the starch from the potatoes could thicken. I have had filé thicken gumbo. Maybe I used a lot? Not sure.

      Reply
  • Yesss! This is fabulous! Le Bon Chef is going to be great fun, a culinary adventure. Great take on a really good subject. Thanks for amplifying Wilma and my short film Lagniappe. My culinary tip of the day: cook gumbo with okra and top off the steaming bowl with a healthy sprinkle of file. good eating.
    BTW- Your description of the film includes a reference to one of my all time favorite reads, Kitchen Confidential. I’m still devastated by the loss of Anthony Bourdain, may he rest in peace and power.
    Here’s to the most important things in life, food, family, friends and art!
    Peace,
    Melanye Finister

    Reply
    • Thanks for weighing in, Melanye. Good luck with your project! Yes, Anthony Bourdain’s passing was a loss. Hang in there,
      Sue Lange

      Reply

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