Monday, October 3, 2011

Gumbo in 1764?

The below find is in no way my discovery.  The credit goes to Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall. . . . 

A few weeks ago a friend of mine who is pursuing his Ph.D. at Louisiana State University, and who is writing his dissertation about Cajun foodways, told me that a professor had commented to him, "You probably won't find any historical references to gumbo before 1803 — others have already tried and failed."

I replied to my friend, "Now that sounds like a challenge."

Shortly after my friend left, I opened a DVD that I had received in the mail.  This DVD contained a videotaped lecture by noted Louisiana colonial historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, author of, among other books, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Louisiana State University Press, 1992). 

Cover of Dr. Hall's book.

As I scanned the DVD, listening to scattered segments of Dr. Hall’s lecture, I caught the words (and I paraphrase Dr. Hall), "And that’s when I found a reference to gumbo from 1764."


I reversed the video and listened to it again.  Yes, that’s what Dr. Hall said.  I told my friend about the reference and I e-mailed Dr. Hall herself, asking if she might send me the citation for this reference.  She kindly did so, telling me that the original document could be found in the Louisiana Historical Center, headquartered in the old U.S. Mint in New Orleans.

I contacted the Louisiana Historical Center, which is affiliated with the Louisiana State Museum, and asked for a copy of the document.  The Center soon sent me a scan of the original handwritten manuscript, the section of which mentioning gumbo I show here (with the phrase "un gombeau" highlighted):

Source: Interrogation of Julia (Comba), 4 September 1764,
Records of the French Superior Council,
Louisiana Historical Center, New Orleans, La.
(Click to enlarge image)

Here is a transcript of the passage:

[Interrogator:] Si elle ne luÿ [lui] avoir pas donné un gombeau avec Cezar et une autre negresse.
[Comba:] A dit qu'ouÿ [qu'oui] cela etait vraÿ [vrai] qu'ils étaient quatre [scratched out] que Cezar méme [même] donne à Loüis cinquante sols pour aller chercher le filer qu'il ÿ fut et buveur tout ensembles.

This passage translates as follows:

[Interrogator:] [I asked] If she hadn't given him [Louis] a gombeau [sic] with Cezar and another black woman?

[Comba:] [She] Said yes it was true that there were four [people].  That Cezar himself gave Louis 50 sols [French monetary units or coins] to find the liquor and that there was drinking all together.

About the word "filer":  Dr. Hall told me she thinks this word is actually "filet".  At first I thought Dr. Hall meant "filé" (powdered sassafras leaves used for seasoning and thickening gumbo).  However, she actually did mean "filet" — not in the sense of "meat," but rather "drink" (liquor), which is indeed a meaning of "filet" in Louisiana French.*  It thus appears to me that the colonial-era writer meant "filet" but spelled it phonetically as "filer".

Now some context:  This September 4, 1764, document is part of an interrogation of a fifty-year-old female slave named Julia, also known as Comba, whose owner was a certain "Sr. [Sieur] Cantrelle."  Comba was being questioned regarding her knowledge of a runaway slave named Louis, also known as Foy, allegedly involved with other slaves, including one named Cezar, in thefts of clothing and a pig.

The significance of this passage is that it pushes back the earliest known reference to gumbo to 1764 — indicating that the dish was known in Louisiana even before the arrival of the Acadian exiles, whose Cajun descendants (unjustly or not) are the ethnic group most often associated with gumbo by the general public.  Of course, this finding is perhaps not so surprising to those who maintain that the word "gumbo" came from the African term for "okra," or, as others maintain, from a Native American word for "sassafras."  (I have no dog in that fight.)

A bowl of gumbo as prepared in New Orleans.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

How this 1764 gumbo was made, however, and what ingredients went into it, is an open question.  Did it contain a roux?  If so, was it light or dark?  Was it seafood gumbo, or chicken and sausage, or something altogether different and unexpected?

Regardless, thanks to Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall for making and sharing this discovery; and thanks to the Louisiana Historical Center for providing scans of the original documents.

Pods of okra.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Addendum:  Playing devil's advocate, a friend suggested that perhaps the interrogator used the word "gombeau" to mean not "gumbo" but "okra." Assuming for the moment that "gumbo" does derive from the African word for "okra" (as opposed to the Indian word for "sassafras" or some other source), it would nonetheless make little sense for the interrogator to ask, "If she hadn't given him an okra [un gombeau] with Cezar and another black woman?"  After all, this interpretation would suggest that Comba gave Louis, Cezar, and the other black woman a single pod of okra — an odd thing to do, since a decent-sized okra pod is about the size of an adult finger and as such would not have lent itself to being shared by four people.  Moreover, this interpretation would require the interrogator to have known and intended the original African meaning of "gumbo."  While possible, I think it more likely that the interrogator meant some kind of soup dish.  Again, however, I don't think we can know how closely this dish would have resembled what we today call gumbo.

Part II of this article can be found here.

*"Filet [filε, file] n.m. drink, shot (of liquor). . . ."  Source: Dictionary of Louisiana French (University Press of Mississippi, 2010).


  1. I heard Roux is named after a military office or a writer passing through New Orleans back in the day. Not sure if true?

  2. Never heard that one, but I doubt it. "Roux" exists in France as a culinary term, and it is also an adjective of color, referring to reddish brown.

  3. That is a fascinating find and confirms the African origins of gumbo. The document is dated 1764 in NOLA during the Spanish period and involves Africans and Creoles who ate the dish. It also predates the migration of Acadians. That pretty tells you that all Louisianians[including the Louisiana descendents of Acadian exiles] learned how to cook and make this delicious dish from the folks already there[Creoles]. Throughout the generations, folks made their own variations of gumbo using the foodstuffs they had available in their geographical area.

  4. Shane, thanks for sharing this.

    In Louisiana languages (French and Creole, primarily), when we refer to the dish now known as Gumbo, we say "un gombo." When we refer to okra, we say "du gombo" or "du gombo févi" or "du févi". Reading the original text, it is quite clear that the soupy dish is what is here being referenced.

    I had never heard of the sassafrass counter. It's odd, especially considering that "gombo" (and other derivations) are used throughout the word originating in the word for Okra in various West African languages. In Brazilian Portuguese, where sassafras doesn't exist, the word for okra is "quiabo" /kee ah boo/; in many Hispanophone islands of the Caribbean, it is "quingonbó" or "bonbó" and in the Near and Middle East, "bendi" or "bendé" are used. They all, ultimately derive from a single word used in Bantu languages.

    This 1764 mention underpins the assumption of many Louisianians through time, that the dish derives in West Africa.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Sassafras was the Indian contribution to Gumbo [French-Roux; African - Okra; and Indian-Filé made from ground-up dried sassafras leaves] The beans and roots from the sassafras plant were used to make medicinal tea.