Things have been pretty quiet around here for almost a year now. I’ve had a lot going on personally—mostly trying to survive my senior year of college—and I sort of let things slip away. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t cooking, eating, sleeping, thinking, and breathing food every second of the past year. On the contrary, I’ve made it my main focus. I decided to devote my last year of college to exploring the culinary history of my family. When I set out to write my senior thesis, I wanted to basically write a history of Louisiana’s foodways—the eating habits and culinary practices that distinguish a people, region or historic period. It only took me about five minutes to realize that a complete, or even semi-complete history of my home state’s food would be impossible to put on paper over the course of one school year. Clearly, I had to narrow things down. I decided to focus on gumbo, the “national dish” of Louisiana.
The more I read, the more discouraged I felt about uncovering the origins of this dish. When I was a kid, my uncle Bradley, a professor of African American history would constantly remind me that “gumbo” was an African word for okra. And while I hated those slimy green pods that my grandmother would sometimes slip into her gumbo, I loved the stew. So I took in his words, but promptly forgot them until 27-year-old me was trying to figure out where the heck a dish like gumbo comes from. I figured gumbo was an African dish, but all the books about Cajun and Creole cuisine kept saying the origins of the dish were “murky” or “shrouded in mystery.” I couldn’t help but call BS. I know when a southerner is trying to avoid a touchy subject and it seemed like all of my books were politely screaming “THERE IS SOMETHING RACIAL GOING ON BEHIND THE SCENES HERE AND WE ARE NOT GOING TO DISCUSS IT!”
So, naturally, that’s the only thing I wanted to find out and discuss.
I did a lot more reading and thinking and came to the conclusion that the missing link in the gumbo story was slavery—that peculiar institution that nobody wants to talk about. Slavery had to be the reason a stew with a clearly African name could become the most beloved dish in Louisiana. Enslaved Africans and Native Americans were essential in making Louisiana and everything it’s known for.
Then I did even more thinking and even more reading and I developed a very pronounced ache in my stomach and in my heart. Have you ever been in a situation where you’re dying to say something, but can’t for whatever reason? Like, say you’re in class and the teacher asks a question that you know the answer to but she just won’t call on you. You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach? I had that for like a year. Everywhere I turned for information on gumbo, Louisiana history, and American slavery, there were pieces missing. Every time I looked at contemporary food writing about the South and about Louisiana I got the same feeling. Finally, that ache became a question: where are all the black women? When do I get to hear their voices, their stories? My thesis advisor gave me a very simple, very challenging answer: you might have to uncover and tell those stories yourself.
I’m a mixed race black woman from Lafayette, Louisiana. Talking about the ways in which black women made and shaped gumbo and the rest of Louisiana’s iconic cuisine means talking about my own history. It means talking about the arguments between my mother, my grandmother and my aunties over what to put in the Christmas gumbo. It means talking about the Creole women of color in the French Quarter, raising families on small empires of food and voudou. It means talking about a lot of things. When I started, I had no idea how or if I could talk about any of that.
I turned to people like Michael Twitty, Toni Tipton-Martin, and Psyche Williams-Forson, who have spent years writing down the stories that are painful to tell, the stories that most people of color (especially women of color) in America have been told nobody wants to hear. Since I couldn’t find anyone writing specifically about black women’s foodways in Louisiana, I did it myself. If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share some of what I’ve been uncovering. I’d like to tell some of those stories here.