Arts, Culture & Media

The Language of New Orleans in One Word: Gumbo

This story is a part of

Global Nation

This story is a part of

Global Nation

okra.jpg

Okra, the origin of New Orleans gumbo (Photo: Marco Werman)

You might have heard me mention that I recently spent some time in New Orleans, as a guest of public radio station WWNO. And one of the things that struck me about the "Big Easy" is the language of the place. It's a reflection of the diversity and wild history of the city.

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Like the advice "LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL" or "laissez les bons temps rouler," there's a unique word-for-word english-to-cajun french construction that shouldn't work but does.

It's also interesting how the words that describe New Orleans' two best known cultural contributions to America — music and food — express multiple layers of meaning in this city.

Think jazz.

Think gumbo.

And whenever new people come to New Orleans, the words and the music and the food evolve. When you listen to trumpeter Kermit Ruffins performing at the Bullet's Sports Bar in the city's seventh ward, it's easy to forget that all this comes out of a few hundreds years of history.

"You know, it's like "there's no place quite like this place, so this must be the place"? There is no place in the United States quite like this place. Southern Louisiana," says New Orleans food historian Jessica B. Harris. "This is a place that has been French, then Spanish, then French, then American. That's a lot of stuff going on."

Not to mention the native Americans who mixed with African slaves and set down the local creole flavor. Not to mention the entire Caribbean which New Orleans was the center of long before Miami assumed the mantle in the 20th century.

Yeah, that's a lot of stuff going on.

"It is that place where things mix. People often have referred to the culture of New Orleans as a gumbo," Harris says. Now you may know gumbo as a stew of various meats and some veg served over rice. It's classic New Orleans. And yet the word gumbo refers to what used to be a key ingredient in the stew.

"If you go anywhere in the French speaking world today and want okra, you ask for gombo. The word "gombo" comes from the Bantu languages: "ochigombo" and "quibombo" which mean okra. So okra I think is intensely connected to this place," says Harris.

And it's not just because New Orleanians like their okra.

Gumbo reflects the diversity of the city. "It's a case where these parts make an extraordinary whole without totally melting. You know, if you have a good gumbo, you can still see the okra, you still know that that was Andouille, you're still aware of the fact that that was duck or chicken or what have you. It's not just a brown stew. It's something else."

Enriching. Just like gumbo.

You can't get away from that metaphor in New Orleans. "We all do things in a different way. But when we come together and put all those ideas together, it's really enriching," says Father Anthony Anala, also known as Father Tony. He's a priest, from Ghana in West Africa who's been leading the congregation at Our Lady Star of the Sea in New Orleans since 2008.

I wanted to meet him because having spent some time in Togo, Ghana's neighbor, I wanted to hear a West African talk about how they saw the connection between New Orleans and their part of the world.

Now, when Father Tony got to New Orleans five years ago, imagine his surprise! He leaves the home of okra to arrive in the home of gumbo. Not only that, this past April, this Ghanaian priest got about as deep into New Orleans musical culture as you can get. He presided over the funeral of a Mardi Gras Indian, a Black Seminole named Cyril Big Six Chief Ironhorse Green.

"There was that mood of celebrating the achievements he has had. And so it was more uplifting, upbeat."

Marco: "And the whole idea of a funeral being a moment of celebration, that's something you find at funerals in northern Ghana and Togo. It's a party time"

Chief says laughingly, "Exactly. All the families come for one funeral, then they all go to another funeral and you can celebrate funerals for like a month,"

And of course, wouldn't you know it, the day I met Father Tony he had had a Ghanaian specialty for lunch: stewed goat. Although he says New Orleans food suits him just fine too. "There's a bit of spiciness in the food, and the gumbo, it tastes like back home."

"People gone be eatin' gumbo. Now all of a sudden you may discover that there're some other things goin into that gumbo. But that takes it from the culinary to the social metaphor, because there are other things going into the gumbo that are the city as well., says food historian Jessica Harris.

And sometimes those "other things" become the standard. That's what happened with Vietnamese bakery Dong Phuong. Vietnam was hobbling back from war when the Tranh family left and came to New Orleans in 1980. Vietnam and New Orleans in fact share French influence. Madame Huong Tran's family in Vietnam were bakers and they brought their trade here.

To accommodate local tastes, the Trans came up with a sandwich roll that worked for both their banh mi Vietnamese Sandwiches and American subs. "You know the French took over Vietnam 100 years. So we take some recipe from French, some American, also from my parents too. Three recipes in one," so now you get that crunchy baguette outside."

The Dong Phuong bakery is now the number one source in all of New Orleans for the bread for the city's famed Po-Boy: that sub stuffed with fried oysters or shrimp.

This pleases pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint to no end when he returns home from touring. "Shrimp Po-Boy. Dressed. You have to say dressed!" We're all "villains in a feeding frenzy. We do that a lot here. But everywhere I go, I'm always glad to get home, but when I leave New Orleans, I never go anywhere else looking for any part of New Orleans. I collect scraps and wishbones and feathers everywhere I go, and then I come home and try and produce a chicken. And it works, and the more extensive travel is, the more I have in my reservoir."

Toussaint has a song that's reflects the Big Easy.

"A yankee saw a crawfish called it a baby lobster
We laughed so hard we nearly busted our sides.

But when he tasted the difference he started raving so much he got a southern welcome arms open wide.

Imagine boudin cooking.
Imagine cracklins cracklin.
Almost enough cayenne to water your eyes.

But in the midst of all this fine southern cuisine, I'll take the crawfish everyday, everytime.

Laissez laissez bons temps rouler.
Laissez laissez bons temps rouler.
Laissez laissez bons temps rouler.

I could eat crawfish everyday.
I could eat crawfish everyday."

President Obama awarded the National Medal of the Arts last week to Allen Toussaint, capping my visit to New Orleans.