Tomatoes in Gumbo? Don't Get Louisianans Started

How do you make your gumbo?

Lucy Buffett’s Winter Gumbo Recipe
Photo: Becky Stayner; Styling: Lindsey Lower

As accepting as we try to be, there are some non-negotiables that Southerners collectively just won't budge on. Thank you notes, homemade pimiento cheese, and seersucker to name a few. However, when we do disagree, we disagree with a stubbornness that could rival any mean donkey. The most divisive issues might seem silly to some, but to Southerners, it can be an affront to the core. For example, how you pronounce pecan (puh-KAHN or PEE-can?), where Brunswick stew originated (Georgia or Virginia?), or—and this is a big one—whether or not you should be putting sugar in cornbread. Depending on where you're from, you wouldn't dare bring up these subjects at the holiday dinner table.

Out of all the opinions in the South, there is one that goes back generations and will likely keep going until the end of time: whether or not tomatoes belong in gumbo. For those in Louisiana and Cajun-Creole pockets of other states, it's a common argument. Many believe that you're never, ever, ever supposed to put tomatoes in gumbo. These folks are the most outspoken and probably learned the family recipe from their grandmothers. It's a commandment drilled in since youth: "Be kind, and never put tomatoes in the gumbo." Yet, others don't agree and say that it adds a tasty, savory component. So, who's right? The answer might even surprise lifelong Louisianans.

Turns out, your preference for tomatoes in gumbo comes down to whether you learned your skills from a Cajun cook or a Creole cook. (Learn about the difference here.) Cajun gumbo does not include tomatoes in the base, but Creole gumbo (typically shellfish or seafood gumbo) does call for tomatoes. In almost every other way, they are similar. Both start with a roux and might incorporate okra or filé powder, but Cajun gumbo usually includes chicken or sausage, while Creole gumbo often uses shellfish. The acidity of tomatoes complements seafood, which might be why tomatoes were initially used in shellfish gumbo but skipped in chicken-and-sausage gumbo.

While many Cajun and Creole cooks stick pretty true to these designations, that doesn't mean you won't find many variations of gumbo recipes out there that besmirch these "rules." You might find a Cajun gumbo with shrimp and tomatoes—who's to judge? All we know is that any gumbo is welcome on our table. You can't go wrong with our Shrimp and Okra Gumbo, though.

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