Southern Gumbo Trail

Southern Gumbo Trail a Documentary from Southern Foodways Alliance

“Sooner or later Southerners all come home,
not to die, but to eat gumbo.”

– Eugene Walter, bard of Mobile, Alabama

* * *

This dish, inextricably tied to New Orleans, is a tradition in homes and cafés throughout the South. When origins are discussed, however, conversations get heated.

Gumbo. So many versions, so many cooks, so many contradictions. Such as: Only use a roux with poultry, filé with seafood. Use okra in the summer, filé in the winter. You haveto have a chaurice in your gumbo. You must use andouille.

This we know for sure: Gumbo, the word, is of African origins. It translates as okra.

Rather than establish origins, the Southern Gumbo Trail seeks to collect stories about gumbo—the varied styles, traditions, and tastes. We share tales of okra-only gumbo, seafood gumbo, chicken and sausage gumbo, turtle gumbo, and green gumbo, too.

For every different style of gumbo there is a different story. Oral history interviews with cooks and purveyors across the South reveal the various ways in which gumbo recipes have been acquired and how they have evolved, helping to explain the importance—and persistence—of the South’s gumbo tradition.

Photo of Okra at at Farm Stand - Southern Gumbo TrailThere are as many variations of gumbo as there are people who make it. But the foundation of any gumbo is the thickener. Some consider okra as the original gumbo base. But then there is the old rule of gumbo-making, “First you make a roux.” Others are of the opinion that filé is the only proper gumbo thickener. Then there are cooks who use some combination thereof. Whatever the style, tradition, or preference, here are descriptions of these gumbo cornerstones to get you primed for your journey down the Southern Gumbo Trail.

For many, OKRA, that spiny and slimy pod, is the only way to thicken a gumbo. Okra not only thickens a gumbo; it adds flavor. It is usually sliced and then sautéed with what many consider the holy trinity of gumbo-making: onions, celery and bell peppers. Okra gumbo has a subtler flavor than filé- or roux-based gumbos.

FILÉ is dried and ground sassafras leaves. It is usually added to a gumbo at the very end of the cooking process or to individual servings. Many prefer filé for its distinctive musty, tea-like flavor. It is sometimes called “gumbo filé.” The Cajuns and Creoles learned about filé from the Choctaw Indians of the Gulf South. Some maintain that filé was used when okra was out of season. Today, both gumbos are made year-round. Combining filé with okra is uncommon.

A ROUX, used as a thickening agent, is achieved by cooking flour and a fat (butter, vegetable oil, or even olive oil) together over high heat. The rich nuttiness of the roux intensifies with cooking, which also affects its color. A roux is used in various recipes; different colors are desired for different dishes. Some use a peanut butter colored roux, while others strive for an almost black roux.

Historically, a seafood gumbo was not made with filé because okra would be in season when seafood was fresh. A duck or venison gumbo would not have okra in it, since hunting season falls during winter and fall, when okra could not be found. While these traditions sprang from simple availability of ingredients, they still hold true in many parts of the South’s gumbo tradition.

This project is underwritten by McIlheny Company, makers of TABASCO®


Alzina's Restaurant - Alzina Toups - Southern Gumbo Trail

Alzina’s Restaurant

Alzina’s offers a one-of-a-kind dining experience. In the chef’s own words, it’s more of “get-together place” than a traditional restaurant.… Read More…

Ann Maylie Bruce - Gumbo Trail

Ann Maylie Bruce

Today, Ann makes seafood gumbo at home during Lent and turkey bone gumbo on the day after Thanksgiving (using a… Read More…

Cafe des Amis_Dickie Breaux

Café Des Amis

Never in his first fifty years of life did Dickie Breaux, né John Richard Breaux, imagine that he would be… Read More…

Chez Jacqueline - Jacqueline Salser - Gumbo Trail

Chez Jacqueline

In 2003 she opened Chez Jacqueline, “a little restaurant,” where alongside some regional specialties she serves French dishes in the… Read More…

Cochon and Herbsaint Restaurant - Donald LInk - Bayou and Gumbo Trail


Eventually, though, his roots called him home. Donald moved to New Orleans and opened Herbsaint Restaurant in 2000. Five years… Read More…

Dooky Chase's Restaurant - Leah Chase - Gumbo Trail

Dooky Chase’s

In 1945, she met musician Edgar "Dooky" Chase II, whose parents owned the restaurant. After the two married, and when… Read More…

Eric Cormier - Gumbo Trail

Eric Cormier

While Eric cannot envision ever matching his mother’s platonic gumbos, he is the main cook in his household today (“My… Read More…

French Food Festival - Diana, Celeste and Donald Uzee

French Food Festival

Donald Uzee calls theirs a non-traditional seafood gumbo, at least by Lafourche Parish standards, because besides shrimp, oysters, and crab… Read More…

Gumbo Shop - Richard Stewart - Gumbo Trail

Gumbo Shop

In addition to iconic New Orleans dishes such as jambalaya and shrimp Creole, the Gumbo Shop’s daily menu offers three… Read More…

John Laudun - Gumbo Trail

John Laudun

Laudun was deep into gumbo research prior to the hurricanes of 2005, the complex aftermath of which drove him to… Read More…

Louisiana Foods - Jim Gossen - Gumbo Trail

Louisiana Foods

After a long career in restaurants, Jim entered the wholesale seafood business. These days you won’t find him toiling behind… Read More…

Lynn Anselmo - Gumbo Trail

Lynn Anselmo

Lynn’s gumbo Ya-Ya is a Creole-style chicken and sausage gumbo that’s about as different from his mother’s Cajun chicken and… Read More…

M&M and C&G Boats - Mark Callais - Gumbo Trail & Down the Bayou

M&M and C&G Boats

Mark eventually moved into a PR job at M&M and C&G Boats, another offshore supply boat company, work that leverages… Read More…

Marcelle Bienvenu and Husband - Gumbo Trail

Marcelle Bienvenu

For the past few decades, Marcelle has written several cookbooks, freelanced for national food magazines, taught cooking at Nicholls State… Read More…

Marie Hebert - Gumbo Trail

Marie Hebert

Marie is a true practitioner of the pressure canner, but she did not acquire her canning skills overnight. She credits… Read More…

Mowata Store - Bubba Frey - Gumbo and Boudin Trail

Mowata Store

Bubba Frey’s Restaurant, which connects to the Mowata Store and maintains limited hours, is where Bubba serves guinea hen gumbo… Read More…

Mr. B's Bistro - Michelle McRaney - Gumbo Trail

Mr. B’s Bistro

While she traveled early on in her career, she settled in New Orleans, her husband’s hometown, and has worked for… Read More…

Mulate's - Kerry Boutte - Gumbo Trail


When Kerry opened Mulate’s, in 1980, he branded it “a Cajun restaurant,” which was an innovative term in those days… Read More…


Seafood Palace

The seafood gumbo at Seafood Palace begins with an awe-inspiring, nearly black roux that gives amateur roux-makers something to live… Read More…