Ask most people what’s truly necessary when making a good gumbo, and the majority would say that a thick, rich roux is as vital as the pot the dish is cooked in. For centuries along the Gulf Coast, though, gumbo and its ancestral versions were made without a roux (gasp!). In many homes across rural stretches of Acadiana today, you’ll still find roux-less, or “thin” gumbo served with regularity.
“If you ask folks in Terrebonne Parish if they make roux for their gumbo, most of them will say no. Gumbos in this part of the state don’t use roux as a thickener. Really thick, dark-roux gumbos are more common in restaurants than in Cajun homes,” writes Melissa Martin in her James Beard Award-winning book, Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes from a Disappearing Bayou. “I had never had a gumbo dark, rich and thick from roux until I lived in New Orleans and tried the ones served in restaurants there. You won’t find a roux-based gumbo in Cajun homes on the bayou, but roux certainly have their place in classic Louisiana dishes.”
And while cooks throughout South Louisiana still love to bicker over whether okra or file is the best gumbo thickener, one thing they can agree on is that both ingredients were used to make luxurious, decadent gumbos—one (file) used by the Choctaw, the other (okra) by Africans—long before French-Acadians brought the concept of a roux into regular rotation. In fact, inside 1901’s landmark recipe tome, The Picayune Creole Cook Book, okra and file are discussed at length in the nine-recipe-long gumbo section, but only two of the recipes—shrimp gumbo file and oyster gumbo—involve a roux, with recipes like penny-pinching cabbage gumbo and squirrel gumbo going completely roux-less.
A primary reason that roux-based gumbo remained something of a rarity in colonial Louisiana and up until the turn of the 20th century is that flour was a pricey import, and butter was expensive—really expensive. The original roux primarily used different types of lard in place of butter or oil, including, if you can believe it, bear lard. Also as a result of these sky-high ingredient costs, roux-based gumbos found more prominent footing in restaurant-heavy urban port cities (ahem, New Orleans) than on the home-cooking tables of Southwest Louisiana, where “thin” gumbo is still winning over new generations of fans with each bowl.