A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

GUMBO: A Dish of the Diaspora
By Special Hagan

When I think of Gumbo, I think of the holidays: my Dad standing over a pot, stirring ingredients, and bragging about our Louisiana roots. He proudly boasts that not everyone knows how to make gumbo, and that although many people say what they make is gumbo it “t’aint necessarily so.”

My Dad’s preparation is methodical. He systematically cuts the onions, deveins the shrimp, adds the crab legs and explains the necessity for the key ingredient–file. When I think about these cooking sessions I am filled with feelings of love and pride. I also remember my progression from a witness to a participant. At the age of 14, I got a promotion, “deveiner” of the shrimp. Except for one or two forays where I dared to make gumbo on my own, this is where I have remained, proud deveiner of the shrimp!

Of course the best part of all of this is the meal. My Dad and I usually sit down together and we discuss the quality of a given batch. Every batch is good of course because I can feel the love, the connection to him. The conversations we have over gumbo are always deep. Sometimes he reminisces about home or some fond memory. During these conversations, I become proud of my Louisiana heritage. I think of summers in New Orleans and grin at the thought of belonging to something that’s unique–or so I have thought in the past.

As I have gotten older and been exposed to other gumbos, I have become a bit more intellectual about this great dish. In my early twenties, I decided to read on the origins of gumbo, and discovered its West African origins. Gumbo literally translates to the word okra; and I discovered that slaves imported the vegetable to the new world.

Then as my circle of friends broadened and I ate their cuisine, I realized that gumbo/okra was a staple ingredient throughout the continent. From Angola to Nigeria to Sierra Leone, okra was somewhere in the mix. This realization was significant because as a descendant of the Diaspora, I gained a heightened sense of self; and I gained a more substantive connection to Africa, a rich and wonderful continent.

Despite this expansive schooling and exposure, I will always first associate gumbo with my Dad and Louisiana. However, I also marvel at its perseverance: its trip across the great Atlantic; its incorporation into the food of my ancestors, and then its adoption into “mainstream” gastronomy. For me, Gumbo epitomizes the richness of African people as a whole. It shows our ability to persevere in the harshest of circumstances and to eventually become one of the world’s richest treasures!

This recipe makes about 10 servings of Gumbo:
2 packs of smoked beef sausage
2 packs of frozen okra
1 large yellow onion chopped finely
3 tablespoons of file (this is a Louisiana seasoning sassafras)
2 tablespoons of cayenne pepper (gives it a bit of a kick)
2 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of flour
1 1/2 pounds of crab legs
1 1/2 pounds of shrimp
2 tablespoons of seafood oil (may need to get the exact name of this at home)
4 tablespoons of Worchester sauce
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 cups of rice (cooked separately to serve in bowls with the gumbo)

In a pot stew size pot, saute the sausage, flour, and onion until slightly brown. Then add the crab legs, okra and seasonings. Cover these ingredients with water. You should cook this on low flame stirring approximately every 10 to 15 minutes. Once this has cooked for about 40 minutes, then add the shrimp (of course these should be deshelled and deveined). The shrimp go in last because you don't want them to shrink too much. Cook until the shrimp are done approximately 10 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the shrimp (pink but not too dark). Serve gumbo over hot cooked rice and, if desired, sprinkle with file.