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®


Bowl of Gumbo

A Short History of Gumbo

Of all the dishes in the realm of Louisiana cooking, gumbo is the most famous and, very likely, the most popular. Gumbo crosses all class barriers, appearing on the tables of the poor as well as the wealthy.

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. She entertains only one party per mealtime and accepts no walk-ins. Once you reserve the space, and her cooking talents, they are yours for the duration of one relaxing, home-cooked, serve-yourself meal.

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 leftover turkey carcass). By far her favorite gumbo to prepare, though, is green gumbo, or gumbo z’herbes, which she eats on Good Friday.

David and Annou Olivier - Gumbo Trail

Annou Olivier and David Olivier

Ann (nickname Annou) Olivier was born into a family of white New Orleans Creoles on Esplanade Ridge, where she still lives today. Dinnertime was an elaborate, multi-course ritual every evening while she was growing up, including on those evenings when the soup came from a can. Which it rarely did—the Oliviers had a cook, Elnora (called Gaga), a devout woman with a big heart and natural talent at the stove. When Annou speaks about Gaga’s cooking – her fried chicken, her stuffed fish, her gumbos – almost every sentence is punctuated with “mmm.”

Bayou Boudin & Cracklin’ - Rocky Sonnier - Southern Boudin Trail

Bayou Boudin & Cracklin’

Rocky Sonnier might not have had cultural preservation in mind when he and his wife, Lisa, began building their Bayou Boudin & Cracklin’/Bayou Cabins bed and breakfast 20 years ago, but today the compound, which edges along Bayou Teche, is a virtual living history museum.

Brigtsen's Restaurant - Frank Brigtsen - Southern Gumbo Trail

Brigtsen’s Restaurant

Several decades and thousands of pots of gumbo later, Frank has a landmark restaurant of his own, Brigtsen’s, where the rabbit and andouille filé gumbo is a deep brown, velveteen potage. His secrets? Baking his roux slowly in the oven, rather than browning it on the stovetop, and sautéing the filé powder with his seasoning vegetables. And one more thing: always keeping his Louisiana heritage close to his stirring arm.

Café Des Amis

Never in his first fifty years of life did Dickie Breaux, né John Richard Breaux, imagine that he would be tied to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, by a bowl of duck gumbo—or anything else for that matter. Though he was born in that town, he spent his teenage years living in Jeanerette forty-some miles to the southeast. Or, as Dickie puts it, “a million miles away.”

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 style her parents once cooked at the French country restaurant about 20 miles from Paris in which they raised her. Like her parents’ place, Chez Jacqueline is family-owned-and-operated.

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 later and only a handful of months after Hurricane Katrina, he opened his second restaurant, Cochon. Gumbo is served at both establishments.

Collins Oyster Company - Nick Collins - Gumbo Trail

Collins Oyster Company

Nick learned oystering from his father, Wilbert Collins. Of six siblings, many of whom lend a hand in the business, he is the one who has made oystering his life’s work. It’s where he always knew he belonged.

Creole Country Sausage Company - Vaughn Schmitt - Gumbo Trail

Creole Country Sausage Company

Vaughn’s parents, Fab and Ricker Schmitt, started Creole Country in 1979. They felt compelled when their favorite sausage producer in Church Point, Louisiana, went out of business. After a two-week crash course—in Oklahoma of all places—they started filling casings. Today, Creole Country provides sausage to restaurants throughout New Orleans—a vital link in the city’s renowned gumbo tradition.

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 their children were old enough to attend school, Leah Chase began working at the restaurant three days a week, first as a hostess, later as a chef.

In the years that followed she has transformed Dooky Chase into a landmark of New Orleans cookery, dishing peerless gumbo and other Creole delicacies. Along the way, she has befriended such luminaries as Justice Thurgood Marshall and musician Ray Charles.

Dunbar's Creole Cooking - Celestine Dunbar and Peggy Ratliff - Gumbo Trail

Dunbar’s Creole Cooking

Celestine Dunbar learned how to make her father’s Creole seafood gumbo at age six in her hometown of Lutcher, Louisiana. Nearly sixty years later, she and the cooks at Dunbar’s Creole Cooking roughly follow her father’s original instructions, beginning with a dark brown roux (“browner than a copper penny”), and finishing it off with a sprinkling of filé. In-between: okra. Dunbar’s gumbo is unorthodox, incorporating all three gumbo thickening agents in one pot. During Lent, it becomes a meatless potage, absent its usual sausage and chicken.

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 wife is from Kansas,” he explains) and finds pride in carrying forth the Louisiana tradition of men in the kitchen.

Farmers Milling Rice Co. - John Hensgens - Gumbo Trail

Farmers Rice Milling Co.

Johnny Hensgens knows from rice. He grew up on his family’s rice farm, eating duck and goose gumbos made from birds hunted in the rice fields. He operated his own rice farm as a young adult. And since 1995, he has been Director of Farming Operations at a large, self-sustaining rice farm just outside of Lake Charles, the town of his birth.

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 claws, it includes sausage and ham. Andre makes the roux in its own heavy-bottomed pot on-site, which means beneath a gigantic circus tent that shelters the weekend’s festivities. On festival days, the Uzees sometimes begin their work before sunrise, but not before enjoying one of the festival’s other delicacies: a hogshead cheese sandwich.

French Market Foods - Larry Avery - Gumbo and Boudin Trail

French Market Foods

French Market Foods might not be a household name in Louisiana or beyond, but the brand under which most of the company’s products are marketed—Tony Chachere’s—most certainly is. Grocery store aisles and meat markets brim with Creole and Cajun seasoning mixes, but Tony Chachere’s seasoning in particular is as abundant in households across Louisiana as dark-roast coffee and cane syrup.

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 styles of gumbo (seafood okra, chicken andouille, and a vegetarian gumbo z’herbes); plus, the kitchen regularly turns out special gumbos and soups, including smoked duck and oyster gumbo, turkey hot sausage gumbo, and a filé gumbo with chicken and sausage.

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 table a book project. He had devoted many days to fieldwork, conducting interviews with gumbo cooks all around the state. While his manuscript-in-progress sits on a shelf for now, he has not abandoned the topic.

Josephine's Creole Restaurant - Josephine Phillips Cormier - Gumbo Trail

Josephine’s Creole Restaurant

While Josephine didn’t even start cooking until after she was married, she appreciated her father’s cookery, and the culinary heritage he bequeathed his family, from a young age. A field worker by profession, he performed boucheries, made his own boudin and tasso, and cooked for funerals and weddings in the community. When he passed away, Josephine made a commitment to carry on her father’s cooking traditions.

Joyce’s Supermarket

The motto at Joyce’s Supermarket – “Where Prices are Born Not Raised” – is as unorthodox as its sausage selection, and it points to the good humor and ingenuity of its proprietor, Lowell Gauthier. Approaching his 70s, Lowell still has a hand in every aspect of the business that he and his estranged wife, Joyce, … Continued

Leeville Seafood Restaurant - Donna Cheramie - Gumbo Trail

Leeville Seafood Restaurant

Seafood gumbo seasoned with ham and smoked sausage, crab patties, fried seafood platters, seafood fondue, salads piled high with chilled shrimp— Donna and a team of women whom she considers family prepare every dish in-house for a clientele of recreational fishermen, tourists passing through Leeville on their way to Grand Isle, and locals who point to Leeville Seafood Restaurant as a place where seafood is done right.

Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe

The Creole filé gumbo ladled out at Lil’ Dizzy’s is the same gumbo that his family has been serving at its restaurants for decades. It builds upon a pre-made, seasoned, dry roux mix that Wayne and his father developed so that they could reproduce the essence of their gumbo anywhere they traveled, be it to another family restaurant or a family reunion.

Billy Gruber - Liuzza's by the Track

Liuzza’s by the Track

Today Billy makes what he calls a Creole gumbo. The recipe is a nod to his mother’s Cajun heritage, but Billy has definitely made the dish his own.

Louisiana Dried Shrimp Co. - Robert Collins and Son - Gumbo Trail

Louisiana Dried Shrimp

Robert Collins is a third-generation shrimp drier in Grand Isle—his teenage son, also named Robert, seems poised to take the company into its fourth generation. Robert inherited the family business, Louisiana Dried Shrimp Co., from his father, who learned to dry shrimp from his father, who learned to dry shrimp from the Chinese shrimp driers who used corner the dried shrimp market in and around Grand Isle back when a portion of the island was known as China Town.

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 a restaurant stove, but if you catch him at one of his homes (either in Houston, Texas, or Lafayette or Grand Isle, Louisiana), he’s likely to greet you with a pan of baked oysters, a slice of root beer-glazed ham, or hot biscuits brushed with melted butter.

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 sausage gumbo as it could be. He makes a lighter roux than his mother does, and he adds flamboyance with color—red bell pepper and slightly cooked okra—to offset the “gray”ness of the food he grew up eating around Baton Rouge. Lynn’s gumbo Ya-Ya is highly seasoned but not fiery—at Tony’s, the tables were always set with Louisiana Hot Sauce.

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 his cooking prowess. Along the bayou, wining and dining clients in the oil business means taking them duck hunting by day and making gumbo on the company’s houseboat hotel by night. It means cooking jambalaya for 300 people, outdoors, in one cast iron pot. It means developing your own spice blend à la Tony Chachere’s and distributing it as parting gifts.

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 University, and maintained a recipe column in The Times-Picayune, the New Orleans-area newspaper. She lives on Bayou Teche in St. Martinville, where she cooks for entertainment year-round, occasionally burns a roux, and mostly enjoys gumbo in the wintertime.

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 the Louisiana State University Cooperative Extension Agency as her best teacher. As she encountered questions while learning to can, she would call the Agency office in Lafayette and the person on the other end of the line would talk her through a recipe and/or send her detailed information—pamphlets, recipes, and photocopied instructions. Now that she has a solid handle on canning herself, Marie assists that office, spreading the informational wealth.

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 made with his own hens during the cooler months, as well as stuffed beef tongue every Thursday for lunch. Other specials might include whole battered-and-fried quail that also were raised by the chef, stuffed ponce (stomach), local frog’s legs, and baked Muscovy duck. On Saturday nights in the restaurant, Bubba, a self-taught fiddle player, and other musicians from the area gather for a genuine, and free, Cajun music jam session.

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 the Brennan family for more than two decades, primarily at Mr. B’s Bistro. That’s where she took a crash course in New Orleans cooking, from then-chef Jimmy Smith, as a culinary school extern. And Mr. B’s is where she now serves at executive chef, channeling Mr. Smith’s pot-stirring with every roux she darkens for the restaurant’s renowned gumbo Ya-Ya.

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 before Cajun culture became a hot commodity. He developed a menu of familiar Cajun dishes—fried seafood platters, jambalaya, étouffée, gumbo—and staged live Cajun music every night.

Olivier's Creole Restaurant - Armand Olivier Jr. and Armand Olivier III - Gumbo Trail

Olivier’s Creole Restaurant

Five generations of Creole family recipes and tradition inspired Olivier’s Creole Restaurant. Armand Olivier Jr., his wife Cheryl, and their son Armand III began their restaurant in 1979 in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood.

Prejean's Restaurant - Terryl Jackson - Gumbo Trail

Prejean’s Restaurant

The customers at Prejean’s Restaurant, where Terryl was executive chef at the time of this interview, tend to prefer more Cajun-styled gumbos, or gumbos wherein a dark roux is the prominent characteristic. Prejean’s daily menu offers at least three roux gumbos: a deep, dark smoked duck and andouille gumbo; a chicken gumbo made with smoked sausage; and a lighter-bodied seafood gumbo of crab, shrimp, crawfish, and oysters if you ask for them.

Punch's Seafood Market - Melinda and Donald Punch - Gumbo Trail and Down the Bayou

Punch’s Seafood Market

Donald Punch was a shrimper all his life, following in the boot steps of his father, until his own son’s Type 1 diabetes forced him onto land. In the 1980s, Lockport’s small, public elementary school didn’t staff a nurse who could administer the kind of care a child with daily medical needs required. Donald and his wife, Melinda, then a high school physical sciences teacher, decided to open a seafood market so that Donald could get to his son at school as frequently as necessary. Donald misses life on the water and dreams of once again owning a small shrimp boat that he could man alone, but Punch’s Seafood Market is going strong and provides a more stable income than shrimping does these days.

Seafood Palace

The seafood gumbo at Seafood Palace begins with an awe-inspiring, nearly black roux that gives amateur roux-makers something to live for. How one gets a roux so dark without burning it is a matter of practice, of dedication to consistency, and of regional expression. David Papania, who grew up in a family of Italian restaurant owners, has been running the Seafood Palace for six years. Scott Landry, David’s childhood friend and a culinary entertainer by trade, eats there at least once a week, and on some weeks as often as every day.

Two Sister's Restaurant - Dorothy Finister - Gumbo Trail

Two Sister’s Restaurant

Two Sister’s Restaurant, named by a previous owner, is actually run by three sisters and one brother—and their mother, Dorothy Finister. A Finister family operation since 1972, the business is a breakfast and lunch destination secreted in a residential New Orleans neighborhood that hasn’t quite recovered from the flooding it sustained following Hurricane Katrina, and the failed federal levee system, in 2005. Which means that on most weekdays, Two Sister’s dining room is the happiest place for blocks.

Uncle Bill’s Spices

While Lionel refuses to divulge family secrets, such as the harvest season for the leaves and how long he cures them, he takes his processing operation, his mortar and pestle, on the road to farmers’ markets and museums. Lionel is modest, but his vocation is rare enough that Slow Food included fresh hand-ground filé on its Ark of Taste. What’s more, Lionel recently convinced his eighty-two-year-old mother, previously in the camp of Louisiana cooks who prefer okra or roux thickeners, to try his filé. She’s a convert.

Vaucresson’s Sausage Company

Today, Vance Vaucresson carries on the tradition with Vaucresson’s Sausage Company. Restaurants throughout New Orleans swear by Vance’s smoked sausage, andouille, and chaurice for their gumbos. Many of his customers were his father’s customers. For more than a century the Vaucressons have held on to their Creole roots and shared them with their community.

World Championship Gumbo Cook-Off

The challenge for all competitors is to produce both roux and stock onsite the morning of the event, beginning when a canon sounds at 6:30 am, and to finish cooking by the time customers come knocking at 11 am. There’s no time for burning your roux; no room for any error at all.

Making Roux - Billy Gruber

XTRA: How to Make a Roux

For every roux-based gumbo out there, each cook has a certain kind of roux they like to make. Some people prefer to use a more subtle peanut butter colored roux. Others prefer the rich nuttiness of a darker roux. Billy Gruber, chef and owner of Liuzza’s by the Track in New Orleans, calls his roux … Continued

Gumbo Bowl

XTRA: Louisiana Gumbo Recipes

Gumbo recipes vary from place to place, person to person. Across the South, no two people make gumbo alike. Chefs have styles; families have traditions. Roux is the most prominent thickener. Some folks use okra instead of–or in addition to–roux.