For starters, unlike its seafood and game-based cousins, the inclusion of animal proteins is optional. As its name would suggest, the primary flavor component of gumbo z’herbes is greens and herbs, and lots of them. Many recipes call for upwards of fifteen varieties of greens to be stewed, dissolved, and married in the eponymous gumbo pot. Collard greens, mustard greens, carrot greens, watercress, romaine, cabbage, beet tops, swiss chard, and kale are no strangers to this hearty, often meatless soup.
Like any Louisiana dish, the origins of Gumbo Z’herbes are somewhat mythical. It’s association with the Lenten season and frequent omission of meats has contributed to the long held tradition that it was a Catholic nod to Good Friday fasting and abstinence. A kind of farewell to the flesh of a different sort meant to keep you honest with your Lenten sacrificing, and in the right dietary mindset ahead of Christianity’s most important holiday.
Variations on the dish, however, lead to controversy on its cultural role. Frequently the hearty verdant flavors of green gumbo are buttressed by ham hocks, sausage, and pickled pork. Adherents to this variation maintain that green gumbo’s job is to prepare the faithful on Holy Thursday for a day’s worth of Good Friday fasting with a hearty and nutritious meal. Whichever way you cut it, it’s hard to separate any Louisiana dish with tradition, and the tradition of green gumbo is the Lenten season.
Sure to continue stirring up controversy in the making, green gumbo is perhaps the only “gumbo” that is served acceptably without roux. By many accounts what makes gumbo different than, say, chicken and okra soup, is its use of roux (a mixture of browned flour in oil) as a flavor base and thickening agent. Green gumbo, however, enjoys the moniker without roux as a required ingredient. To be sure and to make culinary definition that much more complicated, it’s not uncommon to find roux in a gumbo z’herbes, even if many don’t include it.
It begs the question, then, what makes a green gumbo a gumbo? While it is indeed served over rice like its extended gumbo family, that surely can’t be enough to call it gumbo. A purchase of chicken and rice soup at your grocery store should serve to rule rice out as the necessary condition. What makes green gumbo a gumbo is its laissez-faire, everyone-in-the-pot diversity of preparation. Gumbo, in general, as noted as early as 1885’s La Cuisine Creole is an effective vehicle for leftovers and scraps of all sources, be they flora or fauna. Green gumbo in particular participates in that tradition with a typical approach, if not with the typical ingredients. Why is green gumbo a gumbo if it breaks so many gumbo rules? In short, because Louisiana cooks make it, and because Louisiana cooks say so.
1 Large Yellow Onions
1 Green Bell Pepper
2 Celery Ribs
2 Garlic Cloves
I lb Smoked Pork Sausage
6 c Water, Chicken Broth or Stock
6 Boneless Skinless Chicken Thighs (Roughly One Package)
2 c Mustard Greens
2 c Collard Greens
2 c Spinach
2 c Kale
Tony Chachere’s Famous Creole Cuisine
Chop yellow onions, green bell pepper, celery and garlic to preferred thickness.
Cut smoked pork sausage into ¼ inch medallions.
– 1 ½ c Flour
– 1 c Vegetable Oil
Mix the flour and vegetable oil in a large cast iron dutch oven continuously stirring on medium heat until you reach a medium color of roux. Depending on your preference of darkness the roux will take anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour. Once you have reached the color of roux you desire add onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic to roux, continuously stirring for about five minutes to cook vegetables.
Add water, chicken broth or stock to the roux and vegetable mixture in the cast iron dutch oven.
Once the mixture comes to a boil add chicken and sausage.
Cook mixture on medium to high heat for one to two hours allowing the liquid to reduce and the chicken thighs and sausage to cook through.
Add greens to the pot, stirring them into the liquid until they’re completely covered.
Allow mixture to cook for three to five hours on medium heat allowing the greens to become silky in texture.
Season gumbo with Tony Chachere’s to taste.
Serve with or without rice and garnish with green onions and chopped fresh cayenne peppers if desired.
Lafayette native Christiaan Mader has been eating gumbo for over thirty years, twenty-eight of which he’s managed do so without any help from his mom. When not waxing pompously about food and what should be in it, he’s writing and recording songs for his critically acclaimed band Brass Bed, a fixture of the south Louisiana music scene. He’s performed internationally with Sub Pop recording artist Shearwater, and written Ray Davies fan fiction for Vice Magazine. His music has been featured in publications like Spin, Entertainment Weekly, and The New Yorker, as well as on nationally syndicated radio programs and podcasts produced by NPR and KEXP. To view more of Christiaan’s work, or to contact him about a project please visit christiaanmader.pressfolios.com/.