Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On That Word "Gumbo": Okra, Sassafras, and Baudry's Reports from 1802-1803

As I mentioned in an earlier blog article, some maintain that the word gumbo derives from the African term guingombo, meaning "okra"; while others maintain gumbo comes from the Native American (Choctaw) word kombo ashish, meaning "sassafras."*

Recently I examined some evidence that in my opinion — for whatever that is worth . . . I am not a linguist — adds weight to the alleged African origin of gumbo.  This evidence appears in Louis Narcisse Baudry des Lozières' late-colonial-era travelogue Second voyage à la Louisiane (Paris: Chez Charles, 1803).


Title page from Baudry's 1803 book.

In one passage Baudry recorded:
Il n'est point de substances adoucissantes employées dans les affections de poitrine, qui, dans les Colonies, soient plus multipliées que celle du Gombeau. C'est une espèce de ketmia; ses fleurs, ses fruits et ses feuilles sont très-adoucissans. Ils sont souvent employés en tisanes et en cataplasmes. Toutes les parties du gombeau entrent dans les ragoûts des naturels des Colonies, et les européens comme les créoles, trouvent dans le fruit de ce petit arbuste, un aliment excellent. M. Dazille le recommande beaucoup aux arrivans d'Europe. C'est le moyen d'éviter les maladies inflammatoires qu'il leur est si difficile d'éviter (page 308).
Which translates as:
There are no soothing substances used in diseases of the chest that in the Colonies are more numerous than the Gombeau. It's a kind of ketmia: Its flowers, fruits and leaves are very soothing. They are often used in teas and poultices. All parts of gombeau are used in the stews of natives of the Colonies, and Europeans as well as Creoles find the fruit of this small shrub an excellent food. Mr. Dazille recommends it very much to arrivals from Europe. This is the way to avoid inflammatory diseases that are so difficult to avoid.
Note that Baudry says that this "Gombeau" is "a kind of ketmia."  Ketmia is a name given by some to okra.


Ketmia as a synonym for okra.
Source: Philip Miller, The Gardeners Dictionary
(London: Self-published by Miller, 1754)

What is interesting about Baudry, therefore, is his reference not to a soup or stew called gombeau, but his reference to a plant, evidently okra, called gombeau — though intriguingly he did mention that this plant was used "dans les ragoûts des naturels des Colonies" . . . in the stews of natives of the Colonies.

This early association of the word gombeau with okra, in my opinion, lends weight to the assertion that gumbo traces its origin to an African term meaning "okra," as opposed to the Native American term for "sassafras."

Filé (powdered sassafras)
purchased from a modern supermarket.
(Photo by the author)

This etymological issue aside:  It's interesting to note that Baudry mentioned in a previous book, Voyage à la Louisiane, et sur le continent de l'Amérique (Paris: Dentu, 1802), the use of filé (powdered sassafras leaves) in gumbo — still a common practice in present-day south Louisiana. Although he did not actually use the term filé, he referred in that book to:
le sassafras, dont les feuilles séchées et réduites en poudre fournissent une espèce de gombeau aromatique vraiment délicieux (page 169).
Or in translation:
sassafras, whose dried and powdered leaves furnish a type of truly delicious aromatic gombeau.
In this instance it appears that gombeau does refer to a soup or stew, into which sassafras would be placed to season and thicken the dish.

My personal gumbo recipe.
If you can read it, you can steal it.
Addendum:

Here is yet another, more detailed early reference to gumbo, this one from Observations sur la physique, sur l'histoire naturelle et sur les arts (1788).  This book quotes a certain Monsieur P. de la Coudrenière, author of a short tract titled (in translation) "Observations on the Sassafras, Tree of America":

The sassafras [tree] or Iroquois laurel is well-known for its aggreable smell & its medicinal properties. . . . [I]n Louisiana, they . . . use its leaves, gathered in July, which are dried until dark & in the open air, and then they pulverize it roughly. 
These leaves are used in sauces . . . and give them a pleasant taste. . . . The gummy principal is so sticky that a pinch of this powder is enough to make a viscous broth.  This dish is known as American gombo. But we must distinguish this American stew from the one called gombo févi.** The latter is made with the pods of a species of large mauve, known to botanists under the name of sabdariffa [okra]. All parts of this plant contain a viscous juice; and the pods, when they are green, make the water even more sticky than do the leaves of sassafras.
Title page of Observations (1788). 
The first time that one eats gombo, one feels a strong repugnance because of this viscosity; but when one tastes it two or three times, the repugnance passes & then one would then wish to eat it everyday, principly with sassafras, which is much tastier than the févi. The Creoles of Louisiana love it so passionately, that they cannot eat any other soup than this one made with broth, pepper, sassafras, & corn or rice cooked in water. Admittedly, this soup is much healthier & better tasting than our soups of bread. They make gombo with all kinds of meat, poultry & fish. They also make it with shrimp & crawfish. That of cabbage is less esteemed; it is eaten, as is that of shrimp, in the evening, and is often served instead of dinner. 
We [in France] still do not make use of sassafras; but it is very aromatic, and I think it must have other good qualities, which are perhaps greater than those of the wood and root of this tree. We might also draw oil or wax from its berries, for they are similar to those of the laurel, and contain like them a fatty substance. It is surprising that no attempt has been made to introduce the sassafras on the isle of Corsica & in the southern provinces of France, where it would succeed just as well in Virginia, Florida & Illinois. It is a beautiful tree, and which is always green: indeed, this would free the nation of a tribute it pays annually to the foreigner, to procure this wood, especially since we no longer have Louisiana.

Here is the original French text:

Le sassafras ou laurier des Iroquois est très-connu par son odeur agréable & ses propriétés médicinales. . . . [À] la Louisiane, on se sert . . . de ses feuilles, que l'on cueille en Juillet, que l'on fait sécher à sombre & au grand air, & que l'on pulvérise grossièrement. 
Ces feuilles employées dans les sauces . . . & leur donnent un goût agréable. . . . Le principe gommeux qu'elles contiennent est tel, qu'une pincée de cette poudre suffit pour rendre un bouillon visqueux. C'est ce mets que l'on nomme en Amérique gombo. Cependant il faut distinguer ce ragoût américain, de celui qu'on nomme gombo févi. Celui-ci est fait avec les gousses d'une espèce de grande mauve, connue des Botanistes fous le nom des sabdariffa. Toutes les parties de cette plante contiennent un suc visqueux; & les gousses, lorsqu'elles font vertes, rendent l'eau plus gluante encore que ne le font les feuilles de sassafras. 

While Coudrenière may have erred in his use of the word sabdariffa,
he was not far off the mark: Okra and sabdariffa are both
members of the hibiscus family.  Source: David Hosack,
Hortus Elgimensis (New York: T & J. Swords, 1811).

La première fois que l'on mange de ces gombos, on sent une forte de répugnance, à cause de cette viscosité; mais quand on en a goûté deux ou trois fois, la répugnance passe & l'on voudroit ensuite en manger tous les jours, principalement du sassafras, qui est beaucoup plus savoureux que le févi. Les Créoles de la Louisiane l'aiment si passionnément, qu'ils ne peuvent manger d'autre potage que celui qu'ils font avec du bouillon, du piment, du sassafras, & du maïs ou du riz cuit à l'eau. Il faut avouer que ce potage est bien plus sain & bien meilleur au goût que toutes nos soupes de pain. On fait du gombo avec toutes sortes de viandes, de volailles & de poisson. On en fait aussi avec des chevrettes & des écrevisses. Celui de choux est le moins estimé; il se mange, ainsi que celui de chevrette, le soir, & tient souvent lieu de souper.  
On ne fait aucun usage de l'encore de sassafras; cependant elle est très aromatique, & je crois qu'elle doit avoir d'autres bonnes qualités, qui peut-être font supérieures à celles du bois & de la racine de cet arbre. On pourroit aussì tirer de l'huile ou de la cire de ses baies; car elles sont semblables à celles du laurier, & contiennent comme elles une substance grasse. Il est surprenant qu'on ne cherche point à naturaliser le sassafras dans l'Isle de Corse & dans les Provinces méridionales de la France, où il réussiroit tout aussi bien qu'en Virginie, à la Floride & aux Illinois. C'est un bel arbre, & qui est toujours vert: d'ailleurs, ce seroit affranchir la Nation d'un tribut qu'elle paie annuellement à l'étranger, pour se procurer ce bois, sur-tout depuis que nous n'avons plus la Louisiane.
________

*See Barry Jean Ancelet, Cajun Country (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991), p. 141; Peter H. Wood, Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 55.
**The Dictionary of Louisiana French (2010) defines gombo févi as both "okra" and "okra gumbo" (févi in itself meaning "okra").

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."

What?

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).