My great-great grandmother was full-blooded Choctaw, and she taught my great-grandmother who taught my grandmother to make filé from the leaves of the sassafras tree. Filé runs in my blood – just like gumbo.
Gumbo is a Creole dish, and like the Creole people, it’s a blend. Gumbo melds the flavors of African, Spanish, French and Choctaw. From the French comes the roux, flavored with the Spanish Holy Trinity (onions, bell pepper and celery) and a touch of African okra. But what makes the robust, distinctive flavor of gumbo is the filé – which comes from the Choctaw. It’s the Choctaw who first picked the sassafras leaves, dried them and ground them to create filé . So, if you get right down to it, gumbo is an American culinary creation – just like apple pie and cornbread. But you can’t mess with certain things in gumbo – that’s unAmerican.
When Bamboo Willie’s on Pensacola Beach hosted a benefit Gumbo Cookoff yesterday, only two entries showed up — Hemingway’s Island Grill and Frank & Lola’s at Margaritaville. But with these two, no other entries need apply. The competition was fierce and the flavors definitely distinctive. I had to eat two bowls of each to decide which I preferred.
Hemingway’s gumbo was sweet and filled with well-cooked okra, tomatoes, and lots of seafood and served over seasoned brown rice. I still can’t pinpoint which Caribbean spice flavored it, but it was somewhere between cinnamon and all spice, and the tasty combination was sweet, yet spicy. Frank & Lola’s gumbo was rich in brown roux, and a tad spicy, with a hint of filé, and filled with seafood. However, they left a few crab shells and celery strings when ladling it into the giant Ziploc bags to transport it down the beach for the cookoff. Those celery strings cost Frank & Lola my husband’s vote. In the end, Husband and I split our votes on the best – he liked the spicy, sweet Caribbean flavor of Hemingway’s while I stood by one of my local favorites, Frank and Lola’s.
You see, I couldn’t turn my back on my ancestors, I couldn’t vote for gumbo flavored with cinnamon and Caribbean spices – no matter how good it was. Filé runs in my blood.