Food writer, historian, and BBQ scholar Rien Fertel sits down with Cajun cooking king Isaac Toups and the legend herself Leah Chase of Dooky Chase in New Orleans for a master class in gumbo making.
Shrimp-and-Sausage Gumbo
Credit: Photo: Iain Bagwell

For those of us who live down South, we know Southern food is so much more than just fried chicken and biscuits. Within the whole of our region there are distinct cooking cultures influenced by generations of people from all backgrounds and access to different resources. We asked five writers to team up with their favorite chefs to pick one dish that represents the culinary traditions in their corner of the South. From Texas to Virginia, we are exploring five plates with a sense of place like Louisiana's gumbo and the Deep South's meat ‘n' three. Each team delves into the history, the nostalgia, the complexities, and the beauty of each plate, and asks you to share in their traditions with recipes that honor the old and introduce new interpretations.

In this edition, Rien Fertel, author of The One True Barbecue, talks to perhaps the one true source on gumbo, Leah Chase, the 93-year-old chef at Dooky Chase restaurant where locals and visitors have been eating her famous Gumbo Z'Herbes since 1946. For perspective on the dish's Cajun roots, James Beard Award-nominated Chef Isaac Toups joins the conversation and provides his own take on Critter Gumbo.

How do we measure the passing of time? In years? Memories saved? Friends gained?

Chef Leah Chase
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

For Leah Chase, chef of the iconic Dooky Chase restaurant since 1946, it might be said that she can quantify the rhythms of her rich life—each day, passing season, and all ninety-three years—in pots and bowls of gumbo. Many who call New Orleans and South Louisiana home would certainly agree: the winter calls for filé gumbo and the summer okra gumbo, but every day is good for gumbo of any kind. "Gumbo is our mainstay," she likes to say. "We are gumbo people."

Following a busy lunchtime service at Dooky's, I joined Mrs. Chase and Isaac Toups— chef-owner of Toups' Meatery in New Orleans and a contestant on the most recent season of Top Chef, in which his affinity for gumbos (as well as his Cajun accent and laissez-faire attitude) earned him a third-place finish and the fan favorite award—for a conversation on what she calls the "lifeblood for everything."

Growing up just north of the city in Madisonville, "you didn't start a Sunday meal without gumbo," Mrs. Chase tells us. "That's the only gumbo I knew." Sausage and ham, chicken and veal brisket, shrimp and crab, all brimming in a beautiful brown murky soup she calls Creole Gumbo. It's the gumbo that once fueled the Freedom Riders and just about every other Civil Rights fighter that checked in to meet and eat at Dooky Chase. The same gumbo she herself served to James Baldwin, Ray Charles, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, whose hand she famously slapped after he went to add hot sauce to his bowl before tasting.

"In my dining room we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken," she says.

I don't doubt that each bowl she serves has the potential to change a life, much less the world. There's something special about gumbo's ability to sooth the soul, start a conversation, and maybe bring strangers together.

An innumerable number of believers have taken Mrs. Chase up on that latter claim. A bowl of her Gumbo Z'Herbes, or green gumbo as its called by some locals, can earn an eater nine new friends, she claims, one for each of the nine leafy greens thrown into the pot ("And I always hope that one of them's rich," she teases). Those greens, ground to a lovely verdant puree, always total an odd number—an even sum, according to superstition, is unlucky: mustard, collard, and turnip greens; beet and carrot tops; lettuce, cabbage, and spinach; and, for a bit of bite, watercress. Because she serves the soup just one day a year, Holy Thursday, three days before Easter, a chance to dip a spoon into a bowl of Dooky Chase's Gumbo Z'Herbes has become one of the hottest seats in town. In recent years, she's made 100 gallons to serve upwards of 700 people, making for plenty of opportunities to make new friends.

And that is perhaps what gumbo does best. It is a food to share with friends and family, a feast served from a single vessel. "You ever make a cup of gumbo for yourself?" Isaac laughs. "You can't make a little pot of gumbo. Gumbo grows. You gotta make a big pot of gumbo," Mrs. Chase says.

And you can fill that pot with just about anything, she admits while emphasizing that gumbo is not, as has been written many times, an excuse to clean out the refrigerator. Isaac concurs: "It's not the trash pot, it's the choice meats." That choice, though, is in the eye of the beholder. Mrs. Chase remembers her grandmother's blackbird gumbo, with the heads intact and bobbing around in the pot. Those heads add fat and flavor, Isaac says, before sharing his recipe for the dark-rouxed squirrel gumbo (including the heads) he ate growing up in the Cajun town of Rayne, Louisiana. Our host nods along, "you use what you have."

Take, for instance, a gumbo that Mrs. Chase will likely never cook again: a gamey gallimaufry of duck, rabbit, quail, venison, and any other meat or fowl that she deemed worthy enough to toss into the stockpot, which she called Critter Gumbo. This was a special soup that highlighted an annual party thrown during the administration of the city's first African-American mayor, Ernest "Dutch" Morial. Isaac smiles in recognition; down in Cajun Country this wild-caught concoction is referred to as "camp gumbo," he says, the product of the hunters' harvest.

As our conversation comes to an end, the two chefs begin to finish each other's sentences. Gumbo can have that effect.

"You can take five different chefs, and they'll make you five different gumbos," Mrs. Chase says. "But they will all be good.

"I've had many gumbos done many a good way" Isaac agrees, "and everybody's gumbo is a little different from each other's. Your gumbo is the signature of your own soul."

"You're right! It is your own thing. It's you. You might take the same ingredients I put in that gumbo, and your gumbo will be totally different. People are like a bowl of gumbo."

"All different all good."

"And there's nothing like a good bowl of gumbo."

  • Isaac Toups' Critter Gumbo
  • Serves 8-10
  • 1 cup grape seed oil plus two tablespoons
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 large onion diced
  • 2 green bell pepper diced
  • 3 ribs celrey diced
  • 8 cloves garlic minced
  • 2 jalapeños minced
  • 12 oz dark beer
  • 6 cups duck stock/chicken stock
  • 2 pounds of mixed critters cleaned wild ducks/teal/dove/pheasant/wild turkey/squirrel/opossum/wild boar/alligator
  • 6 bay leaves
  • Kosher salt
  • Black pepper

Season critter meat with salt and black pepper ("Don't skimp on the pepper!"). In a large Dutch oven or cast iron pot heat 2 tablespoons of grape seed oil until it just starts to smoke. Add critters in an even layer to brown on all side. Remove critters, but don't clean the pot. Add the rest of the oil and flour, stir continuously ("seriously don't walk away") until a dark chocolate color is achieved. Add in your onion, celery, and bell pepper, and cook for one minute. Add garlic and jalapeño, and cook for another minute. Lower temp on pot. Add beer and stir until mixed well. Add stock bringing it to a simmer while stirring. Add critters and bay leaves to gumbo, and simmer for 4 hours, adding water if it becomes to thick. Stir every 30 minutes with a wooden spoon, while making sure to scrape the bottom. Skim any oil off the top of gumbo leaving about two tablespoons left in the pot. Serve over rice, and garnish with green onions. Drink with an amber-style beer. Tell a Boudreaux and Thibodeaux joke. Enjoy life!

See more iconic Southern dishes: Texas' Chili Con Carne

By Rien FertelLeah Chase and Isaac Toups