February 3, 2010
On the list of things that I find exciting, football probably ranks somewhere between infomercials and the molecular structure of dust bunnies. But this year’s Super Bowl has increased my interest level by a couple of smidgens, if only because the New Orleans Saints are competing. The team has never made it to the Super Bowl before, and hails from a favorite place of mine, which also happens to be one of the country’s great food cities. So, even if you don’t get inspired by the underdog-finally-makes-it narrative, you’ve got to appreciate the potential for good game-time eats.
Despite the name of its football team, the Crescent City is better known for decadence than saintliness, and its cuisine is no exception. As Mark Twain once put it, “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”
According to the Institute for New Orleans History and Culture at Gwynedd-Mercy College, the city’s two major cuisines, Cajun and Creole, emerged from the blending of the many cultures of people that have settled there over the centuries. Creole combines French, Spanish, African and Native American influences; Cajuns are the descendants of people exiled from Acadia in Northeast Canada, who settled in the Louisiana swamps and learned to live on what was locally available (like shrimp and alligator).
From the French comes the roux, made by browning flour and butter or oil to provide a thick base for hearty sauces and stews. The Spanish introduced spices and the “holy trinity” of vegetables: bell peppers, onions and celery. Africans brought the vegetable (technically, a fruit) that is now probably most associated with the region’s cuisine, okra. Native American influence can be found in the use of bay leaf and sassafras, which, aside from being fun to say, can be turned into filé and used as a flavoring and thickener.
What do all of the above have in common? They are all classic elements of gumbo, one of the staples of New Orleans cuisine and a perfect dish to serve at a Super Bowl party (unless you’re a Colts fan, that is, in which case you may prefer breaded and fried pork tenderloin).
Gumbo is a thick soup or stew that comes in as many varieties as Campbell’s. It usually contains some combination of meat, seafood, vegetables and rice, and uses one or two (but never all) of the three thickeners—a roux, okra and/or filé. The latter, according to the Spice House, has the scent of eucalyptus or juicy fruit gum. Andouille sausage or another smoked meat is often added for additional depth of flavor.
The origins of gumbo are as murky as the bayou. According to What’sCookingAmerica.net, no one is even sure whether it is Cajun or Creole, but it’s been made in New Orleans since before there were written records.
Luckily, today there are not only written records but electronic ones that offer countless recipes for gumbo. Here a couple that will give you a flavor for three of the most common types of gumbo—seafood, chicken, and gumbo z’herbes, a vegetarian version that was traditionally eaten during Lent:
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