A sprightly, deeply personal narrative about how gumbo—for 250 years a Cajun and Creole secret—has become one of the world’s most beloved dishes.
Ask any self-respecting Louisianan who makes the best gumbo and the answer is universal: “Momma.” The product of a melting pot of culinary influences, gumbo, in fact, reflects the diversity of the people who cooked it up: French aristocrats, West Africans in bondage, Cajun refugees, German settlers, Native Americans—all had a hand in the pot. What is it about gumbo that continues to delight and nourish so many? And what explains its spread around the world?
A seasoned journalist, Ken Wells sleuths out the answers. His obsession goes back to his childhood in the Cajun bastion of Bayou Black, where his French-speaking mother’s gumbo often began with a chicken chased down in the yard. Back then, gumbo was a humble soup little known beyond the boundaries of Louisiana. So when a homesick young Ken, at college in Missouri, realized there wasn’t a restaurant that could satisfy his gumbo cravings, he called his momma for the recipe. That phone-taught gumbo was a disaster. The second, cooked at his mother’s side, fueled a lifelong quest to explore gumbo’s roots and mysteries.
In Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou, Wells does just that. He spends time with octogenarian chefs who turn the lowly coot into gourmet gumbo; joins a team at a highly competitive gumbo contest; visits a factory that churns out gumbo by the ton; observes the gumbo-making rituals of an iconic New Orleans restaurant where high-end Creole cooking and Cajun cuisine first merged.
Gumbo Life, rendered in Wells’ affable prose, makes clear that gumbo is more than simply a delicious dish: it’s an attitude, a way of seeing the world. For all who read its pages, this is a tasty culinary memoir—to be enjoyed and shared like a simmering pot of gumbo.
About the Author
Ken Wells covered car wrecks and gator sightings for his hometown weekly before leaving the bayous for a journalism career that included twenty-four years on the Wall Street Journal. He has written five novels of the Cajun bayous and lives in Chicago.
When Ken Wells was editor at the Wall Street Journal, he glanced round the newsroom and observed: ‘I’m the only one in here who knows how to skin a squirrel.’ There’s no recipe for squirrel gumbo in this mouthwatering culinary memoir, but there is a vivid account of Wells’ languid bayou childhood and the history and personalities who seasoned it. There could be no better guide to this unique American subculture than Bonnie’s boy from Bayou Black.
— Geraldine Brooks, author of March and People of the Book
Ken Wells was to the gumbo born. Enhancing that felicitous beginning, he has traveled the Gumbo Belt researching, recording, and—most importantly—savoring the myriad interpretations of the iconic Louisiana soup. He even has recipes, including two of my favorites. (I’m not telling which ones!) Like a dense, flavorful gumbo filled with tastes of the region, this is a book to savor.
— Jessica Harris, author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America
Ken Wells knows gumbo, and from whence it comes. And gumbo, and its sources, are profoundly tasty things to know.
— Roy Blount Jr., author of Save Room for Pie
A piquant history of gumbo… This is required reading for gumbo aficionados and addicts, and those who aspire to be.
— Publishers Weekly
Affectionate portrait of that favorite Cajun comfort food and the tradition from which it came. . . . [A] gently spun tale with a few recipes that foodies will want to test immediately. A tasty treat.
— Kirkus Reviews
Wells has meticulously traced [gumbo’s] influences, and he has visited a host of eateries to find every sort of variation on gumbo, from the most high-toned French Quarter restaurants to the celebrated historic precincts of Leah Chase’s iconic diner. . . . Anyone fondly recalling gumbo in its myriad guises will find plenty to savor here.