My Mom's Chicken & Sausage Gumbo
By Ken Wells
History & Background
The hardest thing about making a bear-lard roux for my chicken and Andouille sausage gumbo was getting some bear lard. The bear lard itself, as I explain later, was quite accommodating.
And why, you are perhaps asking, did I wish to make a bear-lard roux in the first place? To prove a historical point.
In the history section of my book, “Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou,” I explore an interesting puzzle: How did it come to be that the roux—flour browned in butter, oil or fat--come to so dominate gumbo today that it’s rare to find either home-cooked or restaurant-cooked gumbo rendered without a roux? In fact, during my research I ate almost 70 separate gumbos in restaurants spread across 16 South Louisiana cities and all of them, whether the restaurant identified as Creole, Cajun or a hybrid of both, were cooked with a roux. Of more than two dozen I sampled that were cooked in homes? Exactly one was rouxless.
Yet, that wasn’t always the case. I cite as evidence The Picayune Creole Cook Book published in 1901 by the forerunner of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper. Its preface implies its compilation of recipes date back two hundred years to the very founding of Louisiana. It contains nine gumbo recipes. All contain the gumbo staple, okra--but only two of the nine were cooked with a roux.
What would be the explanation for that? The roux is French, with written references going back perhaps 600 years. And even though New Orleans’s Continental French founders came with a knowledge of the roux and cooks who knew how to use it—as did the French-Canadian exiles, the Cajuns, half-a-century later—a great deal of early colonial cooking was done by people of color. These were predominantly West Africans who, starting in 1699, were brought to the Louisiana French colony in bondage.
The Africans, the people we now call Creoles, not only worked the fields but they worked the kitchens in French homes and cooked for themselves. They did not use a roux but they came with knowledge of how to cook the spicy one-pot okra and rice stews that they ate in the Motherland. We also know that cultivatable amounts of okra and rice arrived on the ships bearing the slaves, larded by the slave traders themselves to sustain their captives in the New World. Both would flourish in Louisiana’s sultry climate.
And given that the West African Bantu term for okra is ki ngombo, shortened to gombo and translated in French Louisiana as gombeau, it’s likely that the original template for modern-day gumbo comes from these rouxless okra stews. In fact, the earliest written mention of gumbo dates to 1764, and West Africans in the New Orleans French Quarter were cooking it.
Yet flash forward to today, where rouxless gumbo is more rare than a white alligator. How did that come to be?
That’s where bear lard comes in.
Historians, notably among them Ryan Brasseaux, a Cajun who serves as academic advisor at Yale University, note that the ingredients for the roux—flour and some form of animal fat or lard—were in place even during the earliest days of colonial Louisiana. True, wheat wouldn’t grow in Louisiana’s hot, subtropical climate, making flour an expensive import in Louisiana’s first century. But it could be had.
The first mention of a bakery in New Orleans dates from 1725. As for the browning agent for the roux, forget butter. It was more rare than flour in early colonial Louisiana. And vegetable oil was an invention far on the historical horizon.
Pig lard would come into its own eventually as farms took root in the struggling French colony. Until then, animal fats were the ubiquitous cooking agent--bear lard first and foremost. Or as Brasseaux explains, “With butter generally absent from the diets of most colonial Louisianans, early roux relied on oil rendered from local bear lard. Bear oil was not only in wide circulation…but with a higher smoke point than butter, cooks could achieve a darker, more robust roux.” In Brasseaux’s view, bear lard was “the initial game-changing ingredient in Louisiana’s interpretation of roux.”
I hunted in my younger days—ducks, quail, rabbits, squirrels and raccoons but have never hunted bear and knew nothing of bear grease until I happened upon the website for this magazine as part of my research. It was there that I learned about Oil Trough, Arkansas, and stumbled upon its connection in the early 1800s to the bear-lard trade. With no limits, hunters were killing hundreds of bears--and sending loads of bear lard down to New Orleans, the port of entry for all commodities to South Louisiana at that time.
We also know the Cajuns, who had the roux in Canada, were cooking gumbo by that time because a French journalist traveling the Cajun bayous in 1804 got invited to a party where they served gumbo and wrote about it in a book he later published. With bear lard’s superior smoke point, it’s logical to conclude that the Cajuns quickly figured out how to transform the weak Canadian roux into something luscious and robust for their gumbos.
As I rolled out this notion, many contemporary people seemed dubious that bear lard—at a time when many shun high-fat pig lard over health concerns—would stand a taste test. And as I began to research bear lard, it seemed an axiom among those who know bear fat that the taste profile of bear lard would tend to track whatever it is the animal was eating regularly.
Blueberries, acorns, good. Road kill, fish? Hhm. Probably not.
Also, what of the theory of the high smoke point? Could I push a roux to a deep color I had never achieved before?
I was determined to find out for myself.
When I learned to my deep disappointment that bear lard could not be legally bought (not even on Amazon!), Clay Newcomb, the editor-in-chief of Bear Hunting Magazine, bailed me out. Hearing of the possible historical connection to the evolution of the roux, he sent me what he had left over from bear fat he’d aquired in Manitoba, Canada in the fall.
It was only the equivalent of a half a cup, and typically a home gumbo roux starts with a full cup of oil and a full cup of flour. So instead, with the help of my brother who videoed and photographed the event for posterity, we made a mini chicken-and-andouille sausage gumbo in a 5-quart pot in his Houma, La., kitchen. We started with the bear-lard roux using half-a-cup of bear grease and half-a-cup of flour.
The gumbo was otherwise standard and following my mother’s recipe: the Cajun Trinity of onions, bell pepper and celery; oven-browned chicken; Savoie’s, a popular brand of pork andouille, and spices—Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (available these days at Walmart), a little salt and black pepper, garlic powder, a pinch of oregano and thyme, a dash or two of Tabasco Sauce.
Observation 1: I tasted and smelled the lard, which was a creamy white, before using it, wanting to make sure it wasn’t rancid. It was actually a bit sweet on the tongue, but at the same time gave off a slightly earthy odor--an almost mushroom-like aroma but in no way unpleasant.
Observation 2: Brasseaux was spot on about the higher smoke point and how it allows you take the roux longer and get it darker with no scorching effects. I got it to deep mocha chocolate in about 20 minutes over medium heat, and I believe I could’ve easily taken it farther if I wanted to without risk of burning. I think it was by far the most beautiful roux I’d ever cooked and certainly the silkiest. And there was none of the congealing/disintegration that happens when I sometimes make a vegetable oil roux.
Observation 3: In the finished gumbo, which we served over rice as typical, I couldn’t detect any appreciable flavor other than a normal chicken-and-smoked-andouille gumbo flavor. My brother said he caught a mild the hint of “wild” in the taste, but that it was in no way distracting from the flavor. We both ate it readily. It reminded us of our momma’s gumbo.
As another test, I brought the equivalent of two cups full to the John Folse Culinary Institute at my alma mater, Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. where I was giving a book talk. I gave it to Chef Randy Cheramie and Chef Marcelle Bienvenu who are on the staff there and who teach, among other things, roux making. They promised they would taste it and give me their unvarnished opinions.
Bienvenu, emailing for both of them, wrote back two days later: “Ken - the bear fat gumbo was DELISH. We so enjoyed it - a couple of students loved it as well. We favored the ‘kick’ of just the right amount of pepper - not overwhelming.”
I emailed back to inquire about any “wild” overtones they might have detected. “Not a hint,” Bienvenu replied. “Everyone was a bit skeptical but we shamed ourselves. Wish I had a bowl for supper tonight!”
So do I.
Ken Wells is a journalist and novelist who grew up on the banks of Bayou Black, La., fishing, hunting and eating his momma’s gumbo. His ruminations on bear lard are adapted from his latest book, “Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou,” published by W.W. Norton & Co. of New York.