The Gumbo Cook-Off Down Here

The World Famous Cajun Extravaganza and Gumbo Cook-Off was held down at the Civic Center this morning. Gumbo is one of those traditions in Louisiana, like Mardi Gras itself, that is both down-home and serious business. Thousands filled the exhibition hall, and spilled onto the lakefront patio, as 60 teams of amateur cooks, Mardi Gras krewes, and professional chefs handed out Styrofoam bowls of their gumbo. For a $5 admission, you got to go around to all the tables and take what you wanted, because there was plenty—hundreds of gallons of it. A DJ played music for the little kids and intoxicated dancers in the middle of the hall, as everyone else waited for the judges’ verdicts.

The earliest mentions of gumbo seem to be from coastal Louisiana, at the start of the 1800s. Cajun country, well to the west of New Orleans, lays special claim. But the Roux, or thickening base, is French, and an ingredient sometimes used, filé, or dried sassafras, came from Native tribes like the Choctaw. The name gumbo itself comes from a West African word for okra. Cajun Louisiana, which is of French descent, is careful to distinguish itself from Creole culture, which is Afro-Caribbean. Local Cajuns do not tend to use okra in their gumbo.

Gumbo is a basic food, made originally for hard times. Its simplest form—which is the style made here, nearly in Texas—is relatively easy. Fat or oil is used to cook flour until it toasts to the desired darkness, a color described as light motor oil to milk chocolate. This is roux, for which there is much local pride in technique, but if you ever made biscuit gravy from scratch, or a béchamel sauce, you are most of the way there.

The French have mirepoix, and in Louisiana this became the Holy Trinity: onion, celery, and green bell pepper. These are added to the roux, with cayenne and garlic. Stock is whisked in slowly, often with bay leaves from trees here, and the pot is simmered for hours. Meat or seafood is added after a time. The thickness, anything from broth to stew, is up to the cook. Gumbo is served with white rice, which is farmed here, and sometimes with potato salad stirred into it, which is odd at first.

Gumbo is a comfort food, enjoyed most when the weather turns cool. (Dampness and wind off the Gulf can make a 50-degree night cold in the way that a jacket won’t help much.) At this time of year Facebook pages fill with photos of pots filled with brown liquid and things floating in them.

A kid named Santana had told my kid there would be cooking pots at the Civic Center the size of his bedroom, and white rice shipped in by the tractor-trailer load. Coastal Louisiana loves to mythologize its food, even when the most-visited restaurants in town are called Stank (blue-plate specials) and Taint (sushi). As it turned out there were no cooking pots the size of a kid’s bedroom, or semis hauling bags of rice, only a large parking lot filled with pickups, RVs, and barbecue smokers.

The people in the Civic Center were dressed uniformly, if flamboyantly, in the colors of Mardi Gras: purple, gold, green, and camo. The Krewe L’Auberge and Krewe Coushatta were there, from the casinos. (I did not see a krewe from the casino that locals call The Pile of Debris, which rhymes with its real name.) The Krewe of Madness was there (“You Mad Bro!”). The Krewe of Mystère was there. The Krewe du Sauvage was there. The Krewe of Good Times was there. The Krewe de C’est Tout Bon was there. The Krewe du Couillon was there. The Krewe of Comova was there. The Krewe de Fous Amis was there. The Enterprise Club was there. The District Attorney was there, with a man dressed as a raccoon in a Mardi Gras crown. (Come to think of it, that may have been the DA.)

I tried gumbo from a dozen tables. All were rich and tasty. The thing is, everything stewed for hours with roux and the same spices tends to taste much the same, with variations only evident if shrimp has been added, or filé, or a ton of heat. The alligator/goat/deer/duck gumbo, from a krewe that won the Chicken and Sausage category and the People’s Choice category in 2013, was quite like the chicken, sausage, and tasso gumbo, except it had delicate little ribs in it. The secret ingredient in all of them, I can reveal, is salt.

A man came toward us through the crowd, pushing people out of the way, yelling Coming through! Look out! He was followed closely by a woman holding a serving platter with little cups of gumbo for the judges. There would be judging for first, second, and third places in the chicken and sausage category (professional and amateur), wild game category (professional and amateur), and seafood category (professional and amateur). My kid, bored with the lack of enormous cooking vessels and kind of grossed out by the gumbos, said he was ready to go. I badly needed water. More teams pushed past us on their way to the contest, which was far behind schedule and seemed as if it might go on for another 200 years.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.