Iconic Southern Plates: Louisiana Gumbo

BBQ scholar Rien Fertel sits down with Cajun cooking king Isaac Toups and legendary Leah Chase for a master class in gumbo making.

Shrimp-and-Sausage Gumbo
Photo: Photo: Iain Bagwell

For those who live down South, we know every region has its version of comfort food. These recipes passed down throughout generations are cherished culinary traditions.

We asked five writers to team up with their favorite chefs to pick one dish representing the culinary traditions in their corner of the South. From chili con carne in Texas to ham-and-bean soup in Virginia, we explore the plates that give Southern food its reputation for superb cooking and delicious dishes. Food can define a specific region, like Louisiana's gumbo, whose varied influences created this Southern staple.

Meet the Experts

Industry experts delve into the history, nostalgia, complexities, and beauty that honor each Southern plate that helps continue these meals as traditions and introduce new interpretations. In this edition, Rien Fertel, author of The One True Barbecue, talks to a trustworthy source on gumbo, Leah Chase, of the legendary Dooky Chase's Restaurant, where locals and visitors have been eating her famous Gumbo Z'Herbes since 1946. James Beard Award-nominated Chef Isaac Toups of Toups' Meatery provides his take on Critter Gumbo for perspective on the dish's Cajun roots.

Following a busy lunchtime service at Dooky Chase's Restaurant, Mrs. Chase and Isaac Toups—chef and owner of Toups' Meatery in New Orleans—share their affinity for gumbos (as well as his Cajun accent and laissez-faire attitude). As a third-place winner in Top Chef and recipient of the fan-favorite award, Toups and Chase sit down for a conversation on what Chase calls the "lifeblood for everything."

Importance of Gumbo

For Leah Chase, she can quantify the rhythms of her rich life—each day and passing season—in pots and bowls of gumbo. Many who call New Orleans and South Louisiana home would undoubtedly agree. The winter calls for filé gumbo and okra gumbo in the summer, but every day is good for gumbo of any kind. "Gumbo is our mainstay," she likes to say. "We are gumbo people."

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 about every other Civil Rights fighter who checked in to meet and eat at Dooky Chase. She served the same gumbo to James Baldwin, Ray Charles, Presidents George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, whose hand she famously slapped after he added 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 soothe the soul, start a conversation, and maybe bring strangers together.

Chef Leah Chase
Robbie Caponetto

Leah Chase's Famous Gumbo Z'Herbes

Many 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. The dish combines mustard, collard, turnip greens, beet, carrot tops, lettuce, cabbage, 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.

Gumbo Is Unique to Its Cook

And that is perhaps what gumbo does best. It is food to share with friends and family—served from a single vessel. "You ever make a cup of gumbo for yourself?" Toups 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. Chase admits while emphasizing that gumbo is not an excuse to clean out the refrigerator, as has been written many times. Toups agrees, "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, Toups says, before sharing his recipe for the dark-roux squirrel gumbo (including 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 assortment 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 gumbo 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 Toups smiles in recognition. Cajun Country refers to this wild-caught concoction as "camp gumbo," he says, the product of the hunters' harvest.

All Gumbo is Great Gumbo

As our conversation ends, 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," Toups 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."

How To Make Critter Gumbo

Recipe for Isaac Toups' Critter Gumbo

Serves 8-10


  • 1 cup, plus two tablespoons grape seed oil
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 large onion diced
  • 2 green bell pepper diced
  • 3 ribs celery diced
  • 8 cloves garlic minced
  • 2 jalapeños minced
  • 12 ounces of 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


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