The composition and preparation of gumbo has symbolic as well as culinary meaning in Louisiana's Cajun and Creole culture. Folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet and others discuss the significance of the region's cuisine in Cajun Country:
Like their music, language, architecture, and the Cajuns themselves, Cajun cooking is a hybrid, a blend of French, Acadian, Spanish, German, Anglo-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Native American influences. In addition, the frontier imposed itself on Cajun foodways, forcing the area's cooks to improvise recipes to make ingenious use of what was available to cook and cook with.
The most obvious influence on Cajun cuisine is French.… Much of France's fine cuisine is rooted in the need to make the best of a bad situation: examples are the development of cooking techniques designed to make simple foods more appetizing…. Marinades, spices, and long cooking in covered pots helped tenderize poor cuts [of meat] and made them tastier…. Long cooking in covered pots also produced sauces that stretched the nutritional and filling value of the dishes.
The practice of cooking with tomatoes and hot peppers shows the influences from Spanish and Afro-Caribbean sources.… Other African influences included single-dish combinations like jambalaya and gumbo…
Gumbo, perhaps the most dramatic of the Cajun dishes, has clear African origins, but draws on many other traditions as well. Originally its main ingredient was okra, a vegetable first imported from western Africa where it is called guingombo. The spicy cayenne seasoning, typical of subtropical cuisines, represents Spanish and Afro-Caribbean influences. In Louisiana, gumbo is eaten with rice, a crop introduced by the French who harvested what they called providence rice in the flooded lowlands produced by the Louisiana prairie's high claypan. It was grown by slaves and Creole and Cajun yeoman farmers as a supplementary food source, and later made a staple by German and Anglo-American farmers who moved into the area from the Midwest in the nineteenth century.
Gumbo is now considered festive, but originally it was a cook's way of making do with whatever was at hand: chicken, guinea hen, duck, turkey, rabbit quail, dove, blackbird, deer, and other wild domestic meats, alone or in combination. Seafood, once used only in coastal communities, has come into general use with the advent of refrigeration. Shrimp and crab, too delicate to blend well with most meats, are usually used alone or with each other. Oysters, on the other hand, hold their own and are often added to a variety of seafood- and meat-based gumbos. Traditionally, beef and pork are not used in gumbo except in the form of smoked or fresh sausage. Though okra gave its name to the dish, it is not an essential ingredient. A gumbo made with okra is usually called gumbo févi. Gumbo filé, on the other hand, draws on French culinary tradition for its base, a roux. Just before serving, gumbo filé is thickened by the addition of powdered sassafras leaves, one of the Native American contributions to Louisiana cooking.
The flooded rice fields are also used as crawfish ponds, a practice known as double-cropping. The commercial cultivation of crawfish and its reputation as fashionable cuisine are relatively recent occurrences, as folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet discusses in Cajun Country:
Currently, no food is more representative of Cajun culture than the crawfish. The ancestors of the Acadians and French Creoles may have known about these freshwater crustaceans…Yet until the 1940s and 1950s, though considered edible, crawfish were not commercially available in Louisiana. Nor were they highly prized. In fact, the derogatory name "mudbug," which still repels outsiders until they taste them, was not unknown in south Louisiana even thirty years ago-a time when shrimp and crabs were much more in demand, particularly in towns within easy reach of the coast.
People who lived close to crawfish sources, along the Atchafalaya Basin or near prairie lowlands, bayous, and drainage ditches, gathered them from time to time with set nets or drag nets. Recipes were simple: usually crawfish were simply boiled or steamed. Cooks who had help from family members or servants sometimes made bisque. It was not until the mid-1950s, when commercial processing began to make crawfish readily available, that they gained in popularity.…
As crawfish became commercially available, restaurant chefs and home cooks alike began experimenting with the peeled tails and "fat" to develop recipes for stews, casseroles, and thermidores. The simplest of these recipes, crawfish étouffée, is also the most delicate and most popular. Each season more and more outsiders fall in love with the lowly crawfish, so that the industry now plays a major role in the economy of south Louisiana, exporting to urban areas nationwide and to Europe.
Many Americans are only a generation or two removed from the experiences of rural agricultural life. The practice of family and community participation in the production and preparation for consumption of food, especially meat, is no longer familiar to most of us. Yet until refrigeration made it possible to preserve meat for longer periods, cooperative butchering provided families with fresh meat on a regular basis. Simultaneously, working together reinforced a sense of community. In Cajun Country, folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet and others explain the significance of the boucherie in Acadian and Creole society:
Sponsorship of butchery was on a rotating basis and all members of the community within a small geographic area participated. In addition to providing an efficient way of distributing fresh meat to participating families, boucheries also were an important part of the social life of many regions, providing a chance for friends and relatives to get together on a regular basis.
While the people worked together, they also visited and talked. They found out who was doing what, who was seeing whom, who was hosting a house dance that weekend, who was ill and who had recovered, who needed help and who could give it, who was born and who had died. Laughing and gossiping, they also reinforced their sense of community as they slaughtered the animal, and cut, cleaned, and divided the meat. They also make sausages and other by-products.
Nothing was wasted. Gratons or cracklings were made of the skin. The internal organs were used in the sausages and boudin or cooked in a sauce piquante de débris or entrail stew. The intestines were cleaned and used for sausage casings. Meat was carefully removed from the head and congealed for fromage de tête de cochon (hogshead cheese). Brains were cooked in a pungent brown sauce. As in other frugal societies, it was said that the only thing lost in a pig was the squeal.
Boucheries also nurtured a sense of community in the sense that the reciprocal system on which they were based created an interdependence between members of a community that paralleled and underscored other social ties. Boucheries depended on members of the cooperative taking turns providing a pig, calf, or cow, according to the nature of the agreement. Sometimes animals were slaughtered collectively, with at least one representative of each family present to help.
Other times, one family's share in the cooperative was the work of slaughtering and preparing the meat for members of the other families to pick up on a regular basis. Since fresh meat usually could be preserved only a few days, many boucheries operated on a weekly basis. The size of the cooperative was limited to the number that could be adequately served by the animals involved.…
Today, boucheries are rare, but they have not entirely disappeared from Cajun folklife. The advent of refrigeration and supermarkets has eliminated the need, but not the desire to gather. A few families still hold boucheries for the fun of it, and a few local festivals feature boucheries as a folk craft.
Filmmaker Les Blank notes that the boucherie featured in Dry Wood was sponsored by the family of Eva and B-5 Fontenot. Everyone there is related by blood or marriage. Several have come for the weekend from Houston or from other areas that the family moved to in search of work away from the fields.
Food as a Social Event
Not all socializing is related to work. Meals, for example, have long been pivotal in Cajun and Creole society, achieving an importance far beyond simple nutrition. Cooking is a highly cultivated art. It is often said of the Louisiana French that they do not eat to live, but live to eat. Weather and season are two to of the factors that determine what kind of social event meals will be. There are outdoor crawfish, crab and shrimp boils in the spring and summer, and indoor gumbos in winter. Generally, women cook in the kitchen and men cook outdoors.…
In addition to the meal, cooking itself has become a social event. Cooking is considered a performance, and invited guests often gather around the kitchen stove or around the barbecue pit (more recently, the butane grill burner) to observe the cooking and comment on it. Participants can also be pressed into service by the head cook to cut onions, wash crawfish and so on. All the while, the cooperative and performance aspects of cooking provide an opportunity for exchanging news, discussing issues of mutual interest, telling jokes, and singing songs. Large indoor or outdoor affairs are frequently accompanied by informal performances of music and stories.
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