Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What is in a name?

Once when I was young I heard a restaurant was looking for someone who could cook gumbo.  Now this did not seem to be a big thing to me because I had grown up eating gumbo.  So, I made an appointment to go down and tryout for the position by cooking my gumbo for the owners.  There were a few other candidates there in various stages of their tryouts.  As I looked at their dishes I wondered what the heck were they making.

Everyone in my family knew that gumbo was okra stewed with onion and tomato.  But these guys were making some kind of brown soup stuff that had some okra in it and putting all kinds of things in it; like shrimp, sausage and who knows what all.  Obviously, I was confused as to what they were doing.  I was even more confused when one of the owners came by and tasted my gumbo and said thanks for coming out, it tastes good but you might want to try and put some seafood in it.  Needless to say I did not get the job.

Now, I should state that I had an instructor at school from Louisiana who also grew up eating gumbo, okra stewed with onion and tomatoes.  It was interesting to visit with him about the foods he grew up eating and those that his wife's family enjoyed.  The dishes were similar from one family to the other but the protein item was usually different (beef vs pork) and one family ate rice where the other ate sweet potatoes.

I am writing this story because I believe we need state clearly and distinctly on our menus and recipes what an item is.  In the example above gumbo to me was stewed okra.  But, to the restaurant owners it was seafood gumbo.  That much is clear.  But, what is still unclear to me is whether they were looking for seafood gumbo or file gumbo with seafood. 

I can hear you saying, he has lost it, he has spent one too many evenings over the range, aren't they the same?  Well in reality they aren't.  Seafood gumbo by it's name would rely on a brown or cajun roux to provide the thickening.  A roux is used with a boiling liquid to thicken the liquid.  File gumbo would rely on file powder to provide the thickening.  The file powder would be added after the gumbo was removed from the fire because if it boils it becomes stringy.

By the way before i forget, gumbo is African for okra.  Legend has it that African slaves smuggled seeds from the okra plant into the new world which is how we now have okra.

So there we are: three forms of gumbo.  Each correct in it's name but totally different in content and context.
To think this all started with a simple pot of stewed okra, errr gumbo!

Until next time
Happy Eating
Chef Bartosh

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