East Coast folks are different (didn’t the Beach Boys sing that?). Well, their gumbo is different for sure. I learned this on a recent vacation to Charleston and Savannah, when I made the mistake of ordering gumbo at two different restaurants, one in Georgia, the other in South Carolina. Jestine’s in Charleston is famous for its home cooking. The fried chicken was marvelous, but, alas, the gumbo looked and tasted like tomatoes stewed with okra. And, that’s exactly what the gumbo at Bayou Café in Savannah looked like. I’m not too fond of okra stewed with tomatoes, so I didn’t order gumbo again on the trip.
It wasn’t until yesterday, while eating gumbo at the Original Oyster House, a seafood restaurant on Mobile Bay, that I pondered how gumbo could taste so differently just a few hundred miles to the north. I suspect that East Coast gumbo cooks don’t have French and Native American cooks in their family trees like Louisiana cooks. In Charleston and Savannah, the hired help (dare I say slaves?) did the cooking and used their favorite ingredients, hence okra. In the deep, deep South, along the bayous and in the swamps near the Gulf of Mexico, folks had to fend for themselves. They resorted to making a tasty roux to disguise the local ingredients.
Of course, the taste differences might have something to do with geography. Atlantic marshes aren’t what I call swamps and bayous – they’re just low country. All the travel information describes the Low Country as two hundred islands. What that really means to us bayou folk is that there are some bridges crossing from one patch of marshland to the next. But I really doubt if that affects the taste of gumbo.
But the cooks in the Low Country have mastered one dish better than anywhere else. They make Shrimp and Grits that will make ya’ mama cry. I was so captured by the dish that I started ordering shrimp and grits instead of gumbo, and I even bought Nathalie Dupree’s Shrimp and Grits Cookbook. And guess what’s on page 32? You guessed it! Gumbo and grits: simply serve gumbo over grits instead of rice. Now that’s the best of both worlds.