Archive for March 2018

Beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde

It’s 3:00 a.m. and the streets of New Orleans are filled with fog. In some of the livelier areas of town, bars are still open, the last wave of sleepy patrons thinking they might stick around to hear the band play just one more tune before calling it a night. Here, however, on the fringes of the French Quarter, the streets are quiet. Steps away from the Mississippi river, outside a building near the French Market, a man hesitates, then approaches an open window. He exchanges a few words with the person inside, and hands over some money. A small bag is offered in return. The man, clutching his illicit purchase, hurries across the street to Jackson Square. He sits down on a secluded bench, looks around furtively, and opens the bag. Inside, all he can see is a white powder. As he reaches into the bag, he thinks to himself, “I know this is a bad idea. This stuff is gonna kill me some day, but I just…can’t…help myself.” A few minutes later, the bag is empty and the man is happy, having blissfully forgotten his reservations and guilt—and entirely oblivious of the growing effects of the toxins accumulating in his body. A telltale white residue on his upper lip, he stumbles home. Tomorrow he will repeat this ritual. Next time, he decides, he’ll order some coffee too. A nice hot drink might help to take the edge off of all that powdered sugar and grease.

The man has just been to Café du Monde, a New Orleans landmark that’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. His purchase was an order of beignets, a deceptively decadent type of doughnut that made this café famous. Make no mistake about it: enough of these will kill you, all right. But you will die very happy.

Beignet There, Doughnut That
Café du Monde is to coffee shops what In-N-Out is to burger joints. Its charm lies in the utter simplicity of its menu and the quality of its product. At Café du Monde, there is but one food item you can order—beignets—along with a limited choice of beverages. And that is enough: the place is nearly always packed with customers—tourists and locals alike. It has been like this since Café du Monde opened in 1862. The store is called a coffee stand, but it’s very large, with dozens of tables outside under the trademark green-and-white striped canopy, and more inside. On every table are plates of rapidly disappearing beignets.

What exactly are beignets? Café du Monde’s marketing propaganda calls them “French-style doughnuts,” but I’ve always found that description a bit unsatisfying. The term “fritters” might be a bit closer. Like doughnuts, they’re basically deep-fried dough. Unlike doughnuts, they’re square—about 3 inches (8cm) on a side. They’re also very puffy, consisting mostly of air if you go by volume. They are served covered with powdered sugar, and I do mean covered. I have been served beignets with a sugar coating a good solid inch (2.5cm) thick. Thus, a few beignets and a large cup of coffee will supply your full daily nutritional requirements for the four major food groups (starch, grease, sugar, and caffeine).

Café du Monde serves beignets in orders of three, and since that’s the only food item on the menu, it’s considered redundant actually to mention what it is you’re ordering. You simply say, “I’ll have an order and a café au lait.” If you arrive during peak hours you may have quite a wait in line before you get to place your order (even longer if you want a table). Follow the line around to the back of the building and you can watch through the window as the beignets are made. If you’ve ever been to a Krispy Kreme shop, this will be familiar to you, except that at Café du Monde, each beignet is tossed across the room by hand into a vat of hot oil.

Au Lait, Can You See?
Then there’s the coffee. Although you can order black coffee, orange juice, or even cola at Café du Monde, only one beverage provides the perfect accompaniment to beignets: café au lait. Most Americans—at least, those steeped in the Starbucks culture—know what a cappuccino or a latte is, but café au lait is relatively uncommon in North America. The recipe is simple: one part hot brewed coffee (not espresso), one part hot milk.

At Café du Monde, though, café au lait is always made from a blend of coffee and chicory, giving it a much different flavor from ordinary coffee. Chicory is the root of the endive plant, and it is roasted and ground in much the same way as coffee beans. During World War II, shipments of coffee to the U.S. were disrupted, and chicory was used either as a substitute for coffee or as an additive to stretch the coffee supply. These days, most coffee purists look down their noses at coffee-chicory blends, because chicory was historically a cheap imitation of the real thing. Like substituting carob for cocoa, it simply doesn’t have the same taste. But different is not necessarily bad. Café du Monde’s chicory café au lait has a wonderfully smooth flavor, and it matches the beignets delightfully.

Besides the original location on Decatur Street next to the French Market, Café du Monde has a number of other shops in and around New Orleans. This includes, I’m sad to say, several locations in shopping mall food courts. Objectively, the quality of beignets found in the newer locations is no worse than the original, despite being made using shiny new equipment and being located in close proximity to generic fast-food outlets. But the experience is just not the same.

Roll Your Own (Dough)
For that matter, the same can be said of beignets you make yourself. All over New Orleans (and, of course, online) you can find beignet mix and Café du Monde’s signature blend of coffee and chicory for sale. In fact, you can buy every component of the Café du Monde experience—their mugs, spoons, powdered sugar shakers, and even napkin holders with the authentic Café du Monde menu on the side. With modest effort, you could recreate the tastes, smells, and sights of Café du Monde at home. This can be a pleasant way to spend a Saturday morning—I’ve done it myself—but you’ll never get quite the same effect as visiting Café du Monde in person.

Savvy locals will tell you, not without some scorn, that Café du Monde does not have the best beignets in town. That may be true, although the recipe is not one of great subtlety or sophistication, so variations are likely to be comparatively minor. Likewise, one could say that it’s not the best dining experience, especially considering the crowds and noise. But for my money, this combination works. Tasty (if artery-clogging) food, served instantly and inexpensively in a place with history and character: that’s my kind of café. —Joe Kissell

Permalink • Email this Article • Categories: Food & Drink, Interesting Places

More Information about Café du Monde…

Visit Café du Monde on the Web at CafeduMonde.com. You’ll find pictures, a history of the store, and an online store where you can buy beignet mix, ground coffee with chicory, and all the other accouterments of the café experience.

The photo, I realize, doesn’t show a whole lot of Café du Monde itself, but I figured the building was less interesting than the products it produces.

Other articles on this site extol the virtues of In-N-Out Burger and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. As for Starbucks, well…you’re on your own there.

An alligator named Boudreaux eats beignets at Café du Monde in the children’s book Boudreaux and His Buddies by Cindy Barnett Armstrong. The book has a serious side, though: it follows Boudreaux as he experiences Hurricane Katrina.

Related Articles from Interesting Thing of the Day

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde

It’s 3:00 a.m. and the streets of New Orleans are filled with fog. In some of the livelier areas of town, bars are still open, the last wave of sleepy patrons thinking they might stick around to hear the band play just one more tune before calling it a night. Here, however, on the fringes of the French Quarter, the streets are quiet. Steps away from the Mississippi river, outside a building near the French Market, a man hesitates, then approaches an open window. He exchanges a few words with the person inside, and hands over some money. A small bag is offered in return. The man, clutching his illicit purchase, hurries across the street to Jackson Square. He sits down on a secluded bench, looks around furtively, and opens the bag. Inside, all he can see is a white powder. As he reaches into the bag, he thinks to himself, “I know this is a bad idea. This stuff is gonna kill me some day, but I just…can’t…help myself.” A few minutes later, the bag is empty and the man is happy, having blissfully forgotten his reservations and guilt—and entirely oblivious of the growing effects of the toxins accumulating in his body. A telltale white residue on his upper lip, he stumbles home. Tomorrow he will repeat this ritual. Next time, he decides, he’ll order some coffee too. A nice hot drink might help to take the edge off of all that powdered sugar and grease.

The man has just been to Café du Monde, a New Orleans landmark that’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. His purchase was an order of beignets, a deceptively decadent type of doughnut that made this café famous. Make no mistake about it: enough of these will kill you, all right. But you will die very happy.

Beignet There, Doughnut That
Café du Monde is to coffee shops what In-N-Out is to burger joints. Its charm lies in the utter simplicity of its menu and the quality of its product. At Café du Monde, there is but one food item you can order—beignets—along with a limited choice of beverages. And that is enough: the place is nearly always packed with customers—tourists and locals alike. It has been like this since Café du Monde opened in 1862. The store is called a coffee stand, but it’s very large, with dozens of tables outside under the trademark green-and-white striped canopy, and more inside. On every table are plates of rapidly disappearing beignets.

What exactly are beignets? Café du Monde’s marketing propaganda calls them “French-style doughnuts,” but I’ve always found that description a bit unsatisfying. The term “fritters” might be a bit closer. Like doughnuts, they’re basically deep-fried dough. Unlike doughnuts, they’re square—about 3 inches (8cm) on a side. They’re also very puffy, consisting mostly of air if you go by volume. They are served covered with powdered sugar, and I do mean covered. I have been served beignets with a sugar coating a good solid inch (2.5cm) thick. Thus, a few beignets and a large cup of coffee will supply your full daily nutritional requirements for the four major food groups (starch, grease, sugar, and caffeine).

Café du Monde serves beignets in orders of three, and since that’s the only food item on the menu, it’s considered redundant actually to mention what it is you’re ordering. You simply say, “I’ll have an order and a café au lait.” If you arrive during peak hours you may have quite a wait in line before you get to place your order (even longer if you want a table). Follow the line around to the back of the building and you can watch through the window as the beignets are made. If you’ve ever been to a Krispy Kreme shop, this will be familiar to you, except that at Café du Monde, each beignet is tossed across the room by hand into a vat of hot oil.

Au Lait, Can You See?
Then there’s the coffee. Although you can order black coffee, orange juice, or even cola at Café du Monde, only one beverage provides the perfect accompaniment to beignets: café au lait. Most Americans—at least, those steeped in the Starbucks culture—know what a cappuccino or a latte is, but café au lait is relatively uncommon in North America. The recipe is simple: one part hot brewed coffee (not espresso), one part hot milk.

At Café du Monde, though, café au lait is always made from a blend of coffee and chicory, giving it a much different flavor from ordinary coffee. Chicory is the root of the endive plant, and it is roasted and ground in much the same way as coffee beans. During World War II, shipments of coffee to the U.S. were disrupted, and chicory was used either as a substitute for coffee or as an additive to stretch the coffee supply. These days, most coffee purists look down their noses at coffee-chicory blends, because chicory was historically a cheap imitation of the real thing. Like substituting carob for cocoa, it simply doesn’t have the same taste. But different is not necessarily bad. Café du Monde’s chicory café au lait has a wonderfully smooth flavor, and it matches the beignets delightfully.

Besides the original location on Decatur Street next to the French Market, Café du Monde has a number of other shops in and around New Orleans. This includes, I’m sad to say, several locations in shopping mall food courts. Objectively, the quality of beignets found in the newer locations is no worse than the original, despite being made using shiny new equipment and being located in close proximity to generic fast-food outlets. But the experience is just not the same.

Roll Your Own (Dough)
For that matter, the same can be said of beignets you make yourself. All over New Orleans (and, of course, online) you can find beignet mix and Café du Monde’s signature blend of coffee and chicory for sale. In fact, you can buy every component of the Café du Monde experience—their mugs, spoons, powdered sugar shakers, and even napkin holders with the authentic Café du Monde menu on the side. With modest effort, you could recreate the tastes, smells, and sights of Café du Monde at home. This can be a pleasant way to spend a Saturday morning—I’ve done it myself—but you’ll never get quite the same effect as visiting Café du Monde in person.

Savvy locals will tell you, not without some scorn, that Café du Monde does not have the best beignets in town. That may be true, although the recipe is not one of great subtlety or sophistication, so variations are likely to be comparatively minor. Likewise, one could say that it’s not the best dining experience, especially considering the crowds and noise. But for my money, this combination works. Tasty (if artery-clogging) food, served instantly and inexpensively in a place with history and character: that’s my kind of café. —Joe Kissell

Permalink • Email this Article • Categories: Food & Drink, Interesting Places

More Information about Café du Monde…

Visit Café du Monde on the Web at CafeduMonde.com. You’ll find pictures, a history of the store, and an online store where you can buy beignet mix, ground coffee with chicory, and all the other accouterments of the café experience.

The photo, I realize, doesn’t show a whole lot of Café du Monde itself, but I figured the building was less interesting than the products it produces.

Other articles on this site extol the virtues of In-N-Out Burger and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. As for Starbucks, well…you’re on your own there.

An alligator named Boudreaux eats beignets at Café du Monde in the children’s book Boudreaux and His Buddies by Cindy Barnett Armstrong. The book has a serious side, though: it follows Boudreaux as he experiences Hurricane Katrina.

Related Articles from Interesting Thing of the Day


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

New Orleans cemetery

There are few cities with as great a reputation for decadence as New Orleans. If you want rich, fatty, and extravagant foods, you can hardly do better than the Crescent City. Alcohol flows freely, too, and almost any desire of the flesh can be indulged for a modest fee (sometimes payable in cheap plastic beads). But decadence in the original, non-metaphorical sense is also a regular fixture in this city whose past is littered with pirates, devastating fires, and horrific murders. There has been a lot of death and destruction in New Orleans, and the associated signs of physical decay—whether of buildings or of bodies—are everywhere. Particularly striking to many visitors are the city’s numerous old cemeteries filled with creepy-looking aboveground tombs. Whereas death is usually kept hidden, buried out of sight, New Orleans gives residents and visitors constant reminders of the impermanence of life.

The Dead Shall Rise Again
Why aren’t the dead in New Orleans buried underground as they are in most of the rest of the country? Tour guides are fond of explaining (and sometimes embellishing) the practice to shocked tourists. The main issue, they explain, is that New Orleans is actually located slightly below sea level. Because of this, the water table is quite high. When early European settlers put coffins under six feet of earth, they found that the water level would often rise above them, especially during the city’s frequent floods. Since the coffins were filled with air, the water sometimes pushed them up through the earth, causing both a gruesome sight and a health hazard. To keep the coffins underground, holes were drilled in the lid to let air escape, and the coffins were weighted down with rocks and sand. But this was only partially successful, and in any case the saturated corpses did not decompose properly, leading to unsanitary conditions. The only solution was to bury the dead above ground.

Tour guides seldom mention that above-ground burial was a common practice in both France and Spain, where many of the early settlers were from. Even without the resurfacing coffins—which, by the way, were the exception rather than the rule—this practice may well have been adopted simply to keep with tradition. In any case, this method is still widely used today, even though the water table has dropped considerably over the past two centuries as nearby marshes and swamps were drained.

A Bone in the Oven
The first cemetery in New Orleans designed for aboveground burial was the St. Louis #1 cemetery, which opened in 1789. Some accounts claim it was modeled after Paris’s famous Père-Lachaise cemetery, and there can be no doubt that the two bear a strong resemblance to each other. But Père-Lachaise wasn’t used as a cemetery until 1804, so that resemblance may be coincidental. Be that as it may, there is a significant difference that goes beyond the superficial similarities. At Père-Lachaise, the visible structures are, for the most part, just monuments; the bodies themselves are usually placed in vaults in the floors of the tombs. In New Orleans, however, bodies are usually placed inside the walls of the tombs. Because of the hot, subtropical climate, the tomb then effectively becomes an oven, and the high heat causes the body to decompose rapidly in a process that has been compared to a slow cremation. Within about a year, only bones are left.

Just as an oven would not be constructed to bake a single loaf of bread, the tombs in New Orleans cemeteries are used again and again. The specifics vary depending on the exact design of the tomb, but a typical scenario is that after a year, the bones of the departed are swept into an opening in the floor of the tomb, which is then ready for its next occupant. It is a common practice to bury all the members of a family—or multiple families—in the same tomb, with names and dates added to a plaque or headstone as necessary. This procedure is not only sanitary and efficient; it also avoids the problem of growing real estate needs as time goes on.

No Walk in the Park
St. Louis #1 (there are, by the way, a #2 and #3 as well) is the oldest and most famous of about 15 aboveground cemeteries in and around New Orleans. Just as Jim Morrison’s grave attracts visitors to Père-Lachaise, St. Louis #1 has its own star: Marie Laveau, the Voodoo queen. Or, I should say, it has a tomb that many people believe contains her remains—no one is quite sure. But this uncertainty doesn’t stop legions of admirers from leaving offerings and marking the tomb with X’s in a supposed Voodoo ritual that is in fact apocryphal. This is just one of the cemetery sites associated with Voodoo practices—some genuine, some not.

While you may not encounter any ghosts or Voodoo rituals in the cemeteries of New Orleans, you are very likely to encounter thieves, drug dealers, and other ne’er-do-wells. Every single brochure, visitor’s guide, and concierge will warn you, repeatedly and in the strongest possible terms, not to enter the cemeteries alone or at night. Some careless tourists have unwittingly become permanent residents—enough said. That’s not to say you can’t safely visit the cemeteries, just go in a group with a tour guide, during daylight hours.

The cemeteries of New Orleans are often called “cities of the dead.” Not only do the tombs look like buildings, but the cemeteries are organized with streets (and street signs) much like the cities of the living. And it seems somehow appropriate that in New Orleans the decay of death faintly mirrors the decadence of life. That continuity between this life and the next is strangely comforting. —Joe Kissell

Permalink • Email this Article • Categories: Decay, History, Interesting Places

More Information about New Orleans Cemeteries…

For more information about the cemeteries of New Orleans, read City of the Dead: A Journey Through St. Louis Cemetery by Robert Florence. There are also plenty of good Web sites about the cemeteries, such as:

Lots of tour companies offer (safe) guided tours of the cemeteries. See, for example, Haunted History Tours or Tour-New-Orleans.com. Before visiting one of the cemeteries, you might want to check out the New Orleans Police Department’s Tips for Visiting Our Cemeteries.

Related Articles from Interesting Thing of the Day

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

New Orleans cemetery

There are few cities with as great a reputation for decadence as New Orleans. If you want rich, fatty, and extravagant foods, you can hardly do better than the Crescent City. Alcohol flows freely, too, and almost any desire of the flesh can be indulged for a modest fee (sometimes payable in cheap plastic beads). But decadence in the original, non-metaphorical sense is also a regular fixture in this city whose past is littered with pirates, devastating fires, and horrific murders. There has been a lot of death and destruction in New Orleans, and the associated signs of physical decay—whether of buildings or of bodies—are everywhere. Particularly striking to many visitors are the city’s numerous old cemeteries filled with creepy-looking aboveground tombs. Whereas death is usually kept hidden, buried out of sight, New Orleans gives residents and visitors constant reminders of the impermanence of life.

The Dead Shall Rise Again
Why aren’t the dead in New Orleans buried underground as they are in most of the rest of the country? Tour guides are fond of explaining (and sometimes embellishing) the practice to shocked tourists. The main issue, they explain, is that New Orleans is actually located slightly below sea level. Because of this, the water table is quite high. When early European settlers put coffins under six feet of earth, they found that the water level would often rise above them, especially during the city’s frequent floods. Since the coffins were filled with air, the water sometimes pushed them up through the earth, causing both a gruesome sight and a health hazard. To keep the coffins underground, holes were drilled in the lid to let air escape, and the coffins were weighted down with rocks and sand. But this was only partially successful, and in any case the saturated corpses did not decompose properly, leading to unsanitary conditions. The only solution was to bury the dead above ground.

Tour guides seldom mention that above-ground burial was a common practice in both France and Spain, where many of the early settlers were from. Even without the resurfacing coffins—which, by the way, were the exception rather than the rule—this practice may well have been adopted simply to keep with tradition. In any case, this method is still widely used today, even though the water table has dropped considerably over the past two centuries as nearby marshes and swamps were drained.

A Bone in the Oven
The first cemetery in New Orleans designed for aboveground burial was the St. Louis #1 cemetery, which opened in 1789. Some accounts claim it was modeled after Paris’s famous Père-Lachaise cemetery, and there can be no doubt that the two bear a strong resemblance to each other. But Père-Lachaise wasn’t used as a cemetery until 1804, so that resemblance may be coincidental. Be that as it may, there is a significant difference that goes beyond the superficial similarities. At Père-Lachaise, the visible structures are, for the most part, just monuments; the bodies themselves are usually placed in vaults in the floors of the tombs. In New Orleans, however, bodies are usually placed inside the walls of the tombs. Because of the hot, subtropical climate, the tomb then effectively becomes an oven, and the high heat causes the body to decompose rapidly in a process that has been compared to a slow cremation. Within about a year, only bones are left.

Just as an oven would not be constructed to bake a single loaf of bread, the tombs in New Orleans cemeteries are used again and again. The specifics vary depending on the exact design of the tomb, but a typical scenario is that after a year, the bones of the departed are swept into an opening in the floor of the tomb, which is then ready for its next occupant. It is a common practice to bury all the members of a family—or multiple families—in the same tomb, with names and dates added to a plaque or headstone as necessary. This procedure is not only sanitary and efficient; it also avoids the problem of growing real estate needs as time goes on.

No Walk in the Park
St. Louis #1 (there are, by the way, a #2 and #3 as well) is the oldest and most famous of about 15 aboveground cemeteries in and around New Orleans. Just as Jim Morrison’s grave attracts visitors to Père-Lachaise, St. Louis #1 has its own star: Marie Laveau, the Voodoo queen. Or, I should say, it has a tomb that many people believe contains her remains—no one is quite sure. But this uncertainty doesn’t stop legions of admirers from leaving offerings and marking the tomb with X’s in a supposed Voodoo ritual that is in fact apocryphal. This is just one of the cemetery sites associated with Voodoo practices—some genuine, some not.

While you may not encounter any ghosts or Voodoo rituals in the cemeteries of New Orleans, you are very likely to encounter thieves, drug dealers, and other ne’er-do-wells. Every single brochure, visitor’s guide, and concierge will warn you, repeatedly and in the strongest possible terms, not to enter the cemeteries alone or at night. Some careless tourists have unwittingly become permanent residents—enough said. That’s not to say you can’t safely visit the cemeteries, just go in a group with a tour guide, during daylight hours.

The cemeteries of New Orleans are often called “cities of the dead.” Not only do the tombs look like buildings, but the cemeteries are organized with streets (and street signs) much like the cities of the living. And it seems somehow appropriate that in New Orleans the decay of death faintly mirrors the decadence of life. That continuity between this life and the next is strangely comforting. —Joe Kissell

Permalink • Email this Article • Categories: Decay, History, Interesting Places

More Information about New Orleans Cemeteries…

For more information about the cemeteries of New Orleans, read City of the Dead: A Journey Through St. Louis Cemetery by Robert Florence. There are also plenty of good Web sites about the cemeteries, such as:

Lots of tour companies offer (safe) guided tours of the cemeteries. See, for example, Haunted History Tours or Tour-New-Orleans.com. Before visiting one of the cemeteries, you might want to check out the New Orleans Police Department’s Tips for Visiting Our Cemeteries.

Related Articles from Interesting Thing of the Day


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

I have watched a number of reality TV shows on which contestants were asked to consume extremely unappetizing foods. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about, I’m sure, so I’ll refrain from elaborating. Under circumstances of sufficient duress or social pressure, I’ll uncomplainingly choke down just about anything, however unpleasant it may be. But there are a few foods that I would find it difficult to get past my uvula no matter how many viewers at home were cheering me on or how many dollars were at stake. I am thinking, for example, of okra.

Slime Me
In the United States, okra is known as a staple of southern cuisine, and rarely seen elsewhere. A member of the hibiscus family, okra is a tall plant with yellow flowers and edible seed pods. If you look up okra in a dictionary, the one word that will invariably be used to describe the texture of these seed pods is mucilaginous. This word means “glue-like”—that is, viscous, sticky, and slimy. These are acceptable characteristics for adhesives, but not the sort of thing that feels good on my tongue.

Having said that, I must now confess that I have personally, voluntarily cooked with okra, and enjoyed the results tremendously. That’s because context is everything. The one dish in which okra is not only unobjectionable but mandatory is gumbo. I first tasted gumbo several years ago on a trip to New Orleans. I decided to brave it, even knowing it contained okra, because it seemed like one of those quintessential Louisiana experiences everyone should have. I absolutely loved it. The surprising thing was that I could not detect any hint of that mucilaginous texture. When I later made my own gumbo, I figured out why.

Okra is OK
Gumbo is a hearty soup that is one of the cornerstones of Cajun cuisine in Louisiana. There are countless recipes and variations, but it invariably consists of a thick broth served in a bowl over a mound of rice. Some gumbo is made with chicken and andouille sausage; some is made with seafood; some is made with whatever meat happens to be handy. (Purists generally scoff at the notion of vegetarian gumbo.) Gumbo usually starts with a roux (a browned mixture of flour and oil or butter) along with diced, sautéed pepper, onion, and celery. Then a stock is added along with the meat and sliced okra; the resulting mixture is simmered for several hours before serving.

When the okra is heated, its mucilaginous fibers begins to dissolve, and serve as a thickening agent for the soup. Depending on how fresh the okra was when you put it in, how small the slices were, and how long you cook it, there may be no visible remains of the okra at all by the time it’s served. If whole pieces remain, they are quite soft but not even slightly slimy—entirely edible. So the very quality that makes whole okra yucky turns out to be essential to making gumbo yummy.

There are gumbo recipes that omit okra, but they miss the point. For one thing, the word gumbo is derived from the Bantu word kingumbo, which means “okra.” In other words, gumbo without okra is sort of like oatmeal without oats. For another thing, okraless gumbo just doesn’t taste right. The usual alternative thickening agent is filé, a powder made from dried sassafras leaves. Filé becomes gummy when it’s boiled, so it can’t simmer into the soup. It has to be added just before serving, or sprinkled on at the table. There’s nothing wrong with a filé-thickened soup, but it shouldn’t be called gumbo. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Gumbo…

You can read sample definitions of okra (containing the word “mucilaginous”) at Dictionary.com or Hyperdictionary; there’s also one without in the Wikipedia (though the word does appear later on the page in the discussion of how to cook okra).

There are 3.7 bajillion recipes for gumbo on the Web, and when I make it myself, I combine elements from a few different recipes rather than following just one. So I can’t tell you how to make my gumbo, but here are a few reasonable recipes to get you started:

Also see the Wikipedia article on gumbo.

Related Articles from Interesting Thing of the Day

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day