Gumbo cookery in Louisiana is so rich and varied that the state didn't just make the stew its official dish: In 2004, the Louisiana legislature declared gumbo the "official state cuisine."
As beloved jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins sings it, "What is New Orleans? New Orleans is Creole gumbo, filé gumbo, cowan gumbo, chicken gumbo, smoked sausage gumbo, hot sausage gumbo, onion gumbo."
Those are probably the gumbos that loom largest in the minds of okra eaters. But a North Myrtle Beach entrepreneur who believes Lowcountry gumbo deserves more attention is now petitioning the state to designate the Gullah-Geechee creation as South Carolina's historic dish.
"It's a great way to celebrate the heritage of these people who put their stamp on this culture," says Ed Mueller, producer of Carolina Gumbaya. "And it's really going to be a big boon for the coastal culinary corridor, so yahoo for all of us."
According to Doug Mayer, spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley, the governor's office has not yet received a request for a proclamation. And bestowing official state titles is a privilege reserved for the legislature. But based on correspondence with an attorney in Haley's office, Mueller is optimistic about gumbo's chance at state recognition.
South Carolina doesn't have an official state dish: It has a state beverage (milk); state hospitality beverage (tea); state fruit (peach); state vegetable (collard greens) and state snack (boiled peanuts.) Mueller says he's lobbying for the "state historic dish" title because he suspects someone eventually might want to make a state dish case on behalf of shrimp and grits.
Until about a year ago, Mueller was selling insurance in Bay City, Mich. He says Obamacare drove him out of the business. Once resettled in South Carolina, where he's vacationed for the past five years, he began researching the region's traditional foods, and was struck by gumbo's centuries-long history.
"It's just a perfect, perfect dish," he says. "They say it's just a wintertime dish, but no, it's not."
Historians have tracked Louisiana gumbo back to the early 1800s, but Mueller contends that the Lowcountry dish is older. Gumbo - its name was derived from ngombo, the Bantu word for okra - traditionally consists of "a seasoned mixture of two or more types of meat and/or seafood, usually in a roux-based sauce or gravy," according to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
"South Carolina is more entrenched with using okra," Mueller says. "Here, we're more into the shrimp and crab."
The reliance on okra is so pronounced in the Lowcountry that the affections which Louisianans shower on gumbo are usually reserved here for okra soup. Charleston native Kendra Hamilton outlined the soup's meaning and ingredients in a 2007 article for the journal Callaloo.
"It's always served over the rice that my ancestors were kidnapped away from their West African homes to grow," the poet and scholar wrote. "The main ingredient is the okra that came along for the ride. To the rice and okra, long-ago cooks added the wild onions, fresh or dry lima beans, and more rarely the corn borrowed from the Native American succotashes that they found on their arrival in the New World. Lastly, they added the tomatoes, native to Peru but cultivated in South Carolina since at least the seventeenth century, that all three peoples-Africans, Indians, and Europeans -- loved."
Hamilton's essay includes an anecdote about trying to staunch her okra soup nostalgia at a local restaurant, where the menu board listed "okra gumbo." Hamilton forgave the phrasing and asked for fried chicken and a double order of okra soup served over rice.
"When it arrived, it was, as (the server) had promised, generously sprinkled with bits of what appeared to be Hillshire Farm polska kielbasa," Hamilton wrote. "About 'zero' on the authentic meter. It was also 'like a soup.' But this was a watery mess of canned tomatoes and undercooked okra with some dried parsley floating in it .The key to making an okra soup that is flavorful and authentic is simplicity itself: it lies in remaining true to the ingredients, remaining ever mindful of the fact that okra soup is a dish of summer."
When Mueller went looking for gumbo in restaurants, his experience was equally frustrating.
"I found three restaurants making gumbo," Mueller says. "Nobody serves it. This needs to be something you can get when you come to South Carolina."
In Charleston, Nana's Seafood & Soul occasionally serves gumbo. Kenyatta Menozzi says he doesn't like to make it in the summer, because it heats up the non-air-conditioned kitchen, which is already 30 degrees warmer than the outside temperature.
But he served it last week, and it's a fairly good approximation of the lowcountry style: Thickened solely with okra, the peppery, tomato-based stew is crammed with shrimp, blue crab and snow crab legs. "We don't use sausage because we don't really use pork," Menozzi says. (While pork consumption is on the decline in African-American communities nationwide, historians have suggested the Lowcountry's longstanding preference for poultry, beef and seafood could be linked to the Muslim heritage of many slaves from what's now Senegal, Guinea, Gambia and Sierra Leone.) The gumbo's ladled over white rice, and accompanied by a segment of boiled sweet corn.
According to University of South Carolina professor David Shields, who has written extensively about the region's historical foodways, there was a distinctive gumbo style in 19th century South Carolina that incorporated green corn cut from the cob. Still, he was perplexed by gumbo being considered for state historic dish honors.
"There were other dishes far more characteristic: perloo, chicken bog, pine bark stew, shrimp pie," he says. "The 20th century saw shrimp and grits, she crab soup, mustard style barbecue."
Shields adds that rice bread was traditionally "the most ubiquitous edible" in South Carolina. "Since South Carolina was the rice state, the dish should incorporate rice, but some might say that a good gumbo requires a scoop of Carolina gold," he says.
Mueller packages his gumbo without rice. "You can buy your own rice," he says. "You don't have to pay for that."
A quart of Mueller's gumbo sells for $17.99; it's now available at Southern Season, where Mueller will be offering samples this Saturday from 12 noon-4 p.m.
"It's time-consuming to do it right," Mueller says of the market for prepackaged gumbo. "I make a true roux, not just a gravy thrown together. And it's got shrimp, whitefish and sausage. It's fantastic."
For more information on Mueller's gumbo, visit carolinagumbaya.com.
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