Mark W. Huntsman
Mark Huntsman grew up in Madison,
Wisconsin, and has lived in France and South Korea. He received
Bachelor of Arts degrees in French and linguistics from the
University of Wisconsin in 2002, and a Master of Arts degree in
French from Louisiana State University in 2007.
A former national merit scholar, he is the recipient of numerous
grants and awards, including most recently a Board of Regents
fellowship from Louisiana State University.
He is also an avid traveler who has
visited 42 countries and 45 American states, he also enjoys cooking
and sports journalism.
Check out Mark's articles on
Crawfish Boil, Jazz Brunch, & Reveillon Dinner.
Courir de Mardi Gras
In some rural areas of Louisiana, masked and costumed
horseback riders participate in what is called the Courir de Mardi Gras,
which means "run of Mardi Gras." Routes can be as long as sixty miles, and
the riders may visit as many as thirty (30) households.
up to a farmhouse along the route to ask permission for the group to come up
to the house. When permission is granted, the riders charge toward the
house, where they sing, dance, and beg until the owner offers them an
ingredient for making their gumbo.
Often the owner will throw a live chicken
into the air that the riders will chase, like football players trying to
recover a fumble.
Today, people come from all over to watch the riders start
their Courir de Mardi Gras. They also are there to greet the riders after
the run and to help cook a large gumbo with the food that was collected. The
festivities end promptly at midnight, the beginning of Lent.
Courir de Mardi Gras photos courtesy of the web site Mardi Gras in Rural Acadiana, published the University
of Southwestern Louisiana's Center
for Louisiana Studies.
History of Gumbo
Of all the dishes in the
repertoire of Louisiana cooking, gumbo is undoubtedly
the most famous.
One of the oldest dishes in Louisiana and a source of
culinary pride as far back as there are written records,
in modern times it has become as much of a cultural
symbol of Louisiana as jazz or the bayou. Even more so
than jambalaya or red beans and rice, it is ubiquitous
in restaurants, at special events, and in homes of all
classes throughout Louisiana.
Generally speaking, a gumbo is a thick, dark
soup containing a mixture of rice, vegetables, and meat or seafood. Yet when
it comes to ingredients, the one constant in gumbo is variety. Stanley Dry
lists just two hard and fast rules: a gumbo must always contain rice, and
it must always be thickened with something. Most gumbos are, in fact,
double-thickened - first with a dark, oil-based roux (although Gumbo
Z’Herbes is sometimes roux-less, as are some 19th century recipes),
and then using either okra or filé powder, but never both (to connoisseurs,
this as uncouth a practice as blending a Bordeaux with a Riesling).
Otherwise, anything might be thrown into the pot; one can even find written
references to gumbo made with owl and muskrat. However, despite this unlimited potential, the vast majority of gumbos fall
into one of three categories: Seafood Gumbo, containing some combination of
oysters, shrimp, crawfish, and/or crabs, and more often made with okra than filé; Poultry and Sausage gumbo, which uses either chicken or turkey in
combination with pieces of andouille or other smoked sausage, and more often
made with filé than okra; and the increasingly rare Gumbo Z’Herbes, a
meatless soup created for Lent that incorporates a wide variety of greens.
The greens symbolize different things to different families. Most often the
number of greens a person uses represents the number of new friends he or
she is supposed to make that year, but said number is different according to
different authors: some list a specific number like 7 or 9, while Fitzmorris
insists on an even number of greens and Folse on an odd. Leon Soniat best
explains the reality of the situation:
“When we got to the
vegetable stands, where we bought the ingredients for the GUMBO Z’HERBES,
there would be vegetable men or hawkers and their cries of ‘Get your greens,
lady, get your twelve greens, get your fifteen greens, get your seven greens
‘–the numbers changed as we passed by each of the different stands.”
Because gumbo has been a staple in Louisiana
kitchens long before written records of the dish existed, there are many
myths surrounding its origins. No one is even certain whether the dish is
Cajun or Creole in origin - the oldest mention to date is when French
explorer C.C. Robin ate it at a soiree on the Acadian coast in 1803. Yet
there are records of New Orleans creoles enjoying it during roughly the same
time period. It is not uncommon to read that gumbo evolved from French fish
soups such as bouillabaisse. This seems highly unlikely for a number of
reasons, particularly because--while Louisiana has its own version of
bouillabaisse that is similar to the French version--the only ingredients in
common between your standard bouillabaisse and your standard gumbo are water
and salt. Contrary to popular belief, the seafood gumbos that people
erroneously assume to be the descendants of European fish soups were not the
original style of gumbo, as the Cajun diet contained very little seafood
before the 20th century.
The oldest records I have found that describe the contents of gumbo are from
Pavie in The Borderlands: The Journey Of Theodore Pavie to Louisiana and
Texas in 1829-1830, Including Portions of his
Souvenirs Atlantiques, by Betje Black Klier,
where he mentions
squirrel gumbo, a delicious stew made with rice and Chateaubriand’s
Despite these longstanding myths, as early as
1885 there were writers who recognized gumbo as the culinary legacy of the
Although the French contributed the concept of the roux and the Choctaw
invented filé powder,
the modern soup is overwhelmingly West African in character. Not only does
it resemble many of the okra-based soups found in contemporary Senegal, the
name of the soup its self is derived from the Bantu words for the okra
contained within (guingombo, tchingombo, or kingombo. A legacy of the
colonial era, the modern French word for okra is quite simply “gombo”).
Additionally, Jessica B. Harris has found
Afro-Caribbean soups with similar compositions and names to their Louisiana
counterpart. The recipe she gives in Iron Pots, Wooden Spoons (45)
for a Giambo from Curacao reads like a modern Louisiana gumbo: onion,
celery, a ham hock, a bay leaf, etc.
While gumbo may be eaten
at any time and for any reason, it may just as easily be featured as part of
a special celebration. For example, John Folse lists gumbo among the
ingredients of the traditional Louisiana reveillon spread. While the New
Orleans Mardi Gras focuses on dishes such as Grillades and King Cake, gumbo
is crucial to the Cajun version of the holiday.
Learn how to
- New Orleans Style.
Bienvenu, Marcelle, Carl
Brasseaux, and Ryan Brasseaux. Stir the Pot: The History of Cajun Cuisine.
New York: Hippocrene Books, 2005.
Exchange. The Creole Cookery Book. New Orleans, 1885.
Dry, Stanley. “When It
Comes to Gumbo, Almost Anything Goes.” Louisiana Cookin’ Jan-Feb 1998: 6+
Feibleman, Peter S.
American Cooking: Creole and Acadian. New York: Time-Life Books, 1971.
Fitzmorris, Tom. “Great
Gumbos.” New Orleans Magazine Nov 2001: 40-43
Folse, John. The
Enyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine. Gonzales (LA): Chef John Folse &
Harris, Jessica B. Iron
Pots & Wooden Spoons: Africa’s gifts to New World cooking. New York, Simon &
Klier, Betje Black.
Pavie in The Borderlands: The Journey Of
Theodore Pavie to Louisiana and Texas in 1829-1830, Including Portions of
his Souvenirs Atlantiques, Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
Robin, C.C. Voyage to
Louisiana 1803-1805. Trans. Stuart O. Landry. New Orleans: Pelican
Soniat, Leon E. La Bouche
Creole. Gretna (LA): Pelican, 1981.
“Seafood Gumbo New Orleans Style” 27 Dec 2007.
Wilson, Justin. Justin
Wilson’s Homegrown Louisiana Cookin’. New York: Macmillan Publishing