They used to make gumbo with bear lard, and other conversations with author Ken Wells

Photo by Robert Tolchin

Gumbo apocrypha ought to be its own literary sub-genre. In my years as a food writer, I’ve been told all kinds of yarns about how they did it in the old days. They used to eat it with corn meal, ya know? That was a real startler for me when I learned that one. Now, add to that bear lard. Gumbo is a history that keeps on giving.

In Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou, author Ken Wells weaves another chapter of gumbo apocrypha, charting a course through what he calls the “gumbo belt” to tease out the greater meaning of it all. At the bottom of that teleological pot was bear lard, he discovered, the cooking fat of choice for colonial America.

Wells is a 40-year vet in the newspaper game, spending two and half decades on staff at the Wall Street Journal and rounding out his illustrious career at Bloomberg News. A Louisiana native (a Toups, as it happens!) he spent years reporting in Houma. Gumbo Life collide Wells’ ample gifts as a reporter and raconteur.

He spoke with me via email about bear lard, quinoa gumbo (blech), tomatoes (rage!) and burgoo (???).

Ken Wells appears at Saint Street Inn on Saturday, March 16, at 4 p.m. for a book chat and book signing. Chef Pat Mould will serve smoked duck and andouille gumbo, free of charge.

TC: Bear lard? We need to talk about bear lard, first. Did you end up trying it? Is that even legal?

KW: You can’t buy that at Walmart, but I got some from the editor-in-chief of Bear Hunting Magazine Online to experiment with. People forget: There was no butter in early colonial Louisiana, and vegetable oil was a hundred years or more away from being invented. Eventually, we got pig farms and pig lard (thanks mostly to those Germans), but before that bear lard was the most ubiquitous cooking fat not only in colonial Louisiana but the colonial South. It stays good for weeks at room temperatures and also has an exceedingly high smoke point, meaning you can take your roux a long way without it scorching or having it come apart. In other words, it was perfect in times before mechanical refrigeration and when people cooked over wood fires that are not nearly as easy to regulate as our modern stoves.

We know the Cajuns, who had the roux in Canada, were the drivers of the roux in Louisiana because we have early records of New Orleans-area Creole gumbos that were, in the main, cooked without a roux. So the operative theory is that the Cajuns, by getting their bear fat on, are responsible for the evolution of the dark roux that has become so popular today. Indeed, the roux style these days has come to dominate even Creole gumbos that it’s rare to find a gumbo of any kind today cooked without a roux.  And, yes, I made me a bear-lard roux gumbo and…I’m saving the results for the book tour.

So you grew up in Louisiana, knew how to cook gumbo, but moved to New York to write about business. What’s wrong with you?

I did not cook gumbo growing up in Louisiana. My momma’s was so good, why would I cook that? But then I went to grad school at Mizzou in 1975 and found out the hard way that Missouri was in the Midwest, not the South. Pot roast and bland green beans, anybody? (Ok, they had barbecue but that was it on the spicy front.) Gumbo? No way. Missouri people back then thought that gumbo was some version of voodoo. Desperate, I called my momma on the phone and made her give me the recipe. I made it — and I so undercooked my roux that it come out looking like Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. I threw it in the garbage and drove home at Christmas straight to my momma’s kitchen where she taught me the right way.

As for journalism: I’d spent a lot of fun years writing for the Houma paper covering car wrecks, gator sightings and flamboyant local politicians of the kind only minted in South Louisiana. I loved it! But I read The Wall Street Journal religiously and said, “I’m going to write for them one day.” I loved the always beautifully crafted feature story in the middle column of the front page. However, I knew the chances of the WSJ coming to Houma to find me were rarer than seeing those white alligators that hide in the Terrebonne Parish marsh. So, hence grad school, which led to a job at the Miami Herald, which eventually led to a job on The Wall Street Journal. Back then, the Journal didn’t care if you knew squat about business or business writing. They wanted good storytellers and they would teach you all that business stuff. So, yes, I ended up covering oil and gas, mining and various industries but also got to write features on, for example, a gorilla orphanage in Congo and a golf tournament up the side of a bear-infested mountain in Kodiak, Alaska. When Father Jules O. Daigle published the first Cajun dictionary, I profiled him for the WSJ.

It’s occurred to me that you can use gumbo like 23andMe. And it’s probably cheaper and more accurate. What’s your gumbo heritage?

My dad was an outlander from backwoods Arkansas who, having arrived in Houma in 1936 as a teenager and having finally tasted gumbo, decided he wanted to marry into a gumbo-cooking family. (Man, my pa was smart!) He met my mom at a Cajun dance as a Marine on combat leave near the end of WWII, and they got married six weeks later. She was a Toups from Thibodaux and spoke Cajun French. Her gumbo always began with, “First, cher, you have to make a roux.” She learned it from her mother, who learned it from hers, etc.

For a long time, my Toups family thought they were actually Acadians, i.e., Cajuns. But, no, they were bilingual Swiss-Germans who migrated to France around 1720 and a year or so later hopped on a ship to Louisiana, landing around the present-day city of Hahnville. They had been recruited by the great con man of his century, John Law, with promises they would find mines of silver and gold and an earthly paradise for hunting, fishing and farming. The second part was true, assuming you survived the hurricanes, floods, yellow fever, malaria and raids by testy Native Americans. My Toups forebear (the German name was Dubs or Doubs) came with a wife and two sons, but most of the Germans came as single men. As soon as the Cajun women started arriving in the 1760s, the Germans married them, so the Toupses have Cajun maw-maws all over the family tree. The sausage for the gumbo improved because the Germans were good at charcuterie, and the Cajuns had that dark roux to stand up to it. And this intermarriage is also how sauerkraut and wieners became smothered cabbage and andouille. That’s when “cultural appropriation” was a beautiful and tasty thing.

Do you remember when Disney made a “healthy” “roux-less” gumbo that had kale and quinoa in it and the internet exploded? At the time, I remember thinking, “none of these people complaining have ever had real gumbo. This is fake news.” That was before fake news was really a thing. I guess what I’m saying is Disney invented fake news. Thoughts?

Quinoa is an assault on the very notion of food. It should not be allowed near a salad, much less a gumbo. I think some of the outrage was fake but not all of it, like this guy on “I’m from Lafayette, Louisiana, and I gotta say…this recipe right here makes me mad enough to wanna punch a baby right in the face.” That sounds terribly authentic to me based upon my experience in many of the bars I’ve frequented in South Louisiana over the years.

How many fights about tomatoes did you get in or witness?

My mother had several gumbo rules, all of which were totally correct. “No damned tomatoes in my gumbo, ever!” was the first one. When people told me they cooked gumbo with tomatoes, I stopped talking to them. (And then went off looking for a baby to punch in the face.)

A folklorist I know once explained to me that you can really learn a lot about people by how they deploy their roux. In your travels, did you watch someone cook a gumbo, dolloping roux into a stock pot of boiling water and think (rather than starting with roux as the base, like a civilized person), “This guy’s a real neanderthal”?

I never saw that process (thank God!). I did see people making roux in ovens, some without using any oil at all. I was dubious, but in one case, at Li’l Dizzy’s Café, a Creole place in New Orleans, the gumbo made with that oven roux is (in my opinion) killer good. So it’s hard to fault the process. That said, I like stirring my roux. It’s the Zen part of the gumbo making and, anyway, it’s how my momma showed me. So when I stir my roux I have a lovely memory of my late mom at the gumbo pot. As for those jarred rouxs? My mother would not approve. She liked making her roux, too.

Now that this book is out in the world, do you finally feel comfortable telling everyone you prefer burgoo?

Funny, on my first drive down from Chicago to Louisiana to undertake six weeks of gumbo book reporting, I actually diverted to Kentucky to try burgoo. I had not heard of it before I began my gumbo research. It was fine — a good iteration of a one-pot stew — and I would eat it again. But all my childhood flavor memories are tied up with gumbo, and I honestly NEVER get tired of it.