“Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou” by Ken Wells— 250 Years of Gumbo

Wells, Ken. “Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou”, W.W. Norton, 2019.

250 Years of Gumbo

Amos Lassen

Ken Wells shares a personal narrative about gumbo and that it has been for 250 years a Cajun and Creole secret and has become one of the world’s most beloved dishes. Of course every gumbo recipe is secret and has a secret ingredient that only each individual mother knows and it is different with each off them. Such a secret!!!!!!!! And I believe it since gumbo tastes different wherever you have it.

Any self-respecting Louisianan will tell you that his “Momma: makes the best gumbo. It remains the product of a melting pot of culinary influences and gumbo totally reflects the diversity of the people who cooked it up: French aristocrats, West Africans in bondage, Cajun refugees, German settlers, Native Americans; all of them have had a hand in the pot and therefore added to or subtracted from the recipe. So what is it about gumbo that continues to delight and nourish so many and what explains its spread around the world?

Ken Wells is a journalist who goes after the answer to these questions. He returns to his childhood in Cajun Bayou Black, where his French-speaking mother’s gumbo often began with a chicken that had been chased down in the yard. When he was a young man, gumbo was a soup that was little known beyond the borders of Louisiana. While at college in Missouri, Wells realized there wasn’t a restaurant that could handle his gumbo cravings so he called his momma for the recipe. The gumbo that was a result of that phone chat was a disaster but it became the impetus for him to explore gumbo’s roots and mysteries. That is what this book does.

Wells spends time with octogenarian chefs who produce gourmet gumbo; he joins a team at a highly competitive gumbo contest and visits a factory that makes gumbo by the ton. He observes the gumbo-making rituals of an iconic New Orleans restaurant where high-end Creole cooking and Cajun cuisine came together for the first time.

Wells has traveled the Gumbo Belt researching, recording, and tasting the many different interpretations of gumbo and he has recipes, He knows gumbo and its sources and its history making “this required reading for gumbo aficionados and addicts, and those who aspire to be.” He tells us that gumbo’s history is “the story of jazz but writ in food”. The Colonial French brought the roux, the Cajuns amped it up, creating a dark roux that would forever change gumbo. Spanish pioneers contributed spices from their colonies in North Africa and the Caribbean. File, ground-sassafras powder and an early gumbo staple came directly from the Choctaw Native American tribe. German settlers took the French andouille sausage and re-smoked it, slaves from West Africa and the islands came to Louisiana with okra and rice stews that were early gumbo prototypes and so on and so on. It is interesting that the word okra in African Bantu dialect is “ki ngombo” and here is where gumbo got its name.”

And I am sitting here  in Boston watching the snow fall on March 3 as New Orleans is celebrating Mardi Gras and I am coveting (yes coveting) a big bowl of gumbo. I can actually smell it,



As we read, we understand that gumbo is more than delicious; it is also an attitude, a way of seeing the world. Wells has written a memoir that we can almost taste and when I read it for a second time, I will have a bowl of gumbo in front of me. There is more than talk of gumbo here; Wells shares growing up on the bayou, skinning squirrels and meeting the different personalities he grew up with. This is history that most of us do not know about—I knew some from having been raised in New Orleans but the bayou is truly unique.

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