Gumbo has been around the block. The classic dish owes its name to the Bantu word for okra, ngombo, and to this day glistening okra pods star in hot pots across Africa. By the time the Louisiana Territory was purchased from the French in 1803, international trade and forces had settled in the South and many hands in the region were stirring pots of gumbo, too.
Slave cooks in New Orleans nursed gumbo and French Acadian Cajuns provided the roux, a thickening for gravy and sauces. Hot peppers from the Caribbean and later from New Iberia, La., added a touch of heat to the dish.
At best, a pot of gumbo is laced with shellfish or chicken or duck or smoky sausage or ham or whatever suits the spirit. But okra, tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs and bell peppers are stirred in, too, and a silky roux made from flour and butter or oil is de rigueur. And after that you can let your imagination soar, remembering that this Old World culinary inspiration began in New Orleans almost three centuries ago.
Another Southern ingredient, sassafras leaves, now known as filé powder, was borrowed from American Indians and a tablespoon or two of the ground leaves were stirred into the dish.
Note that a sprinkling of the filé can make the gumbo sauce a little gummy and stringy if the powder is cooked too long. For that reason some cooks frown on using a roux and filé powder at the same time in gumbo since both are thickeners (the roux is a more cautious choice), but many gumbo aficionados still do.
"The roux gives the gumbo sauce a silky touch and the gumbo filé adds a nice flinty taste," said my oldest sibling, John, who lives in Biloxi-Gulfport on the Gulf Coast where gumbo reigns supreme. "We like our dish both ways. I stir in the gumbo filé just as I am taking the pot off the stove to serve."
Fair enough. Gumbo is a warming and evocative dish, improvisational cooking at its best.
Joyce White is the author of "Brown Sugar" and "Soul Food." Reach her at email@example.com.