Good gumbo recipes surface in unlikely places, but I admit finding them at the Genealogy Branch of the West Florida Public Library was a surprise. In retrospect, it makes sense. Local cookbooks, especially those collected by history-based organizations, tell stories about customs, neighborhoods, families, friends, and the folks next door. A cookbook might well be a researcher’s last resort in finding Aunt Sally.
And at the Genealogy Branch I hit the mother lode in my search for 300 gumbo recipes to commemorate New Orleans’ 300th birthday. I went in search of The North Hill Cookbook, which my friend had described as rich in recipes and anecdotes. Published in 1981 by the North Hill Preservation Association, the cookbook commemorated 200 years since the Battle of Pensacola and Spanish control of West Florida. The North Hill District, a site of an important battle, now contains 425 buildings, including dozens of stately Victorian homes. Two years after publication of the cookbook, the neighborhood was recognized as a U.S. historic preservation district.
The cookbook is as rich as the history contained on its now-yellowed and near-crumbling pages. Recipes are interspersed with illustrations by local artist Pat Regan and historical accounts like the biography of Bernardo de Galvez, who led the Spanish troops at the great victory at North Hill. On the personal side, are “I Remember When” anecdotes like shopping at the markets in old Pensacola. The publication reflects the diversity of North Hill with ethnic recipes like Poet Laureate Adelia Rosasco-Soule’s Italian contribution — Aiolo Mayonnaise. Contributors even include their North Hill address – a jackpot for family history researchers. The biggest surprise for me – a pressure cooker gumbo recipe.
The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Ft. Pickens Chapter cookbook lacks the nostalgia of North Hill’s publication, but offers some tempting desserts from America’s First Ladies. There’s only one gumbo –and it’s not an original Florida Panhandle concoction, but this Cajun Red Bean Gumbo is on my menu for Mondays, the traditional Red Beans & Rice Day in New Orleans. That’s washing day, you know, so start a big pot of red beans.
Just a few Dewey Decimal points down from North Hill and Ft. Pickens, I discovered Old Customs of Pensacola and Favorite Recipes of the Times by Catharine Stewart and Maude Hollowell. The 8 ½ x 11 plastic-bound collection printed in 1974 takes the “Five Flags Over Pensacola” approach to organize recipes from Spanish, French, English settlers along with American Territorial, Confederate and Old Pensacola favorites. Chicken and Oyster Gumbo, according to the authors, was the typical first course for Christmas dinners in Pensacola. The authors include two variations of the recipe. Gumbo recipes appear in the French, Confederate and Old Pensacola sections.
The Confederacy recipes in Old Customs of Pensacola and Favorite Recipes of the Times show the scarcity of ingredients during the war and reconstruction years, though the hard tack recipe might make it go a little farther.
Fresh ingredients used in the two gumbo recipes in the Old Pensacola section point to bountiful harvests and thriving markets in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The Pensacola Heritage Foundation wasn’t to be left out from preserving culinary history. In 2003 the organization published Two Dashes of Sevillity: Pensacola Specialties from Mullet to Mignon. I suspect only residents catch the play on words with “civility” as a reference to Seville Square, the site of a 1752 Spanish outpost named a public plaza in 1813. Today it’s the site of one of America’s largest outdoor art fairs, the Greater Gulf Coast Arts Fest. The cookbook editors carried out the theme with tongue-in-cheek titles for chapters Dixie Doin’s, Garden Street Greens and Five Flag Specialties. The 254-page plastic bound cookbook includes four gumbo recipes.
The Gonzalez family submitted recipes for seasonal gumbos. The difference is okra versus oysters. After all, folks who live on the Coast never eat oysters in May, June, July or August – months without the letter “R.” Those hot months might spoil oysters. I’d leave the wine out regardless of the month.
I remember an episode from TV’s House Hunters International when a South American resident explained a local dish. “Everyone eats it, but visit seven families and each one makes it differently.” So it is with gumbo. Reading these genealogical gumbo recipes, I realized each is a little different, just like families. And each one has an oddball ingredient or two.