During my recent visit to New Orleans, one thing that impressed me most as I learned about the city’s cultural and culinary evolution was the way in which a key element was introduced into the mix.
When the slave traders arrived in west Africa and rounded up the locals for “import” to the New World, they refused to allow the enslaved to carry anything with them. Because okra held a sacred place in African culture as both a food and a healing agent, the women being pressed into slavery hastily wove the dried vegetable pods into their hair in order to bring it to their new home. This is how we came to have okra in North America.
Ever since people began leaving home for points unknown (whether their journeys were voluntary or forced), they’ve brought their treasured comfort foods with them. There’s nothing that can take the edge off of illness or loneliness or anxiety quite like having a meal of what soothed us when we were young. Even now, when I return to Los Angeles from a trip home to Tennessee, my suitcase is tight with packages of country ham and bacon and, until they started being shipped to the West Coast, good ol’ Goo Goo Clusters. If I could manage it, I’d include fried catfish in the trove. None of these foods are haute cuisine, but that’s not the point. This is why chefs sharing with each other what their last meal would be, were they ever to end up on death row, invariably list their favorite comfort foods.
The Bantu word for okra, “kigombo,” gave us the name of that quintessential New Orleans food, gumbo. As okra was a special food to the west Africans, so gumbo is to New Orleanians. We all have our own “gumbo,” even if we don’t eat it with a spoon.