Gumbo Brings Cajun Food and Culture to Dallas
February 2023 marked 10 years of me living in Texas. For the first two years of my relocation, I still had my Louisiana driver’s license. With that license as my season pass, I made countless trips on I-20 to my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, only a measly two-and-a-half hour drive from my rented room in my oldest sister’s house in Mesquite. Since then, I have frequently ventured west on I-20 and immersed myself in the culture of Texas. Soft tacos are in my weekly diet, I cheer for the Rangers, and Selena’s music appears more frequently in my playlists. I appreciate the culture around me, and after many years, Texas is finally appreciating my culture. The Cajun and Creole food options around DFW lately have been plentiful, more than just my old coworkers appreciating my contributions to monthly potlucks: Natchitoches meat pies, king cake, Southern Classic chicken, and my dad’s gumbo. Instead of inferior imitations drowned in Tony Chachere’s seasoning and Tabasco, we’re getting food from those that share history with the items on their menus. We are on the verge of Louisiana-Texas food culture to rival Tex-Mex food.
It’s more than just Louisiana food culture flowing into Texas. There’s been a large influx of Mardi Gras celebrations in DFW, too. The neighborhood organization Go Oak Cliff held its 15th annual Mardi Gras parade this year, which bridges the gap for Louisiana transplants to feel at home. Every year, there are more participants and spectators of the procession down Davis Street. It’s becoming a holiday Dallasites adopt as their own. So how’d that happen? The area of North Oak Cliff is not only being gentrified by new apartments and residents. There is a cultural shift taking place, with more fine and upscale options coming into Bishop Arts and the surrounding neighborhood, and an embracing of its historically French roots. And people are noticing — Restaurant Beatrice earned a spot on James Beard Award finalists for 2023 as one of the three best new restaurant honorees in DFW. A few streets over, numerous dishes on Vegan Food House’s menu also come from Creole tradition, which charts its origins back to the descendants of enslaved African people brought to Louisiana who integrated with the French and Native Americans. Louisiana’s cultural background has entered into Texas restaurants and grocery stores.
Chef Tamra Patterson is a Fort Worth native, and owner of Chef Tam’s Express in Arlington and Tam’s Underground Cafe in Memphis, Tennessee. Her speciality is a fusion of her favorites growing up, Cajun soul food. The mac and cheese is showered with crawfish and shrimp tails, combining two comfort food favorites in a gooey, cheesy, spicy dish. Her salmon and catfish are blackened, a cooking style synonymous with Cajun cuisine, covered in her seafood cream sauce, and laid on top of dirty rice browned and seasoned with ground pork. Being resourceful is the foundation of soul food. It was the only option enslaved Africans had after only the scraps were left after the plantation owners were fed. The Acadians were French settlers on the East Coast until they were exiled and migrated to Louisiana. Throughout the years, their name was shortened to Cadians and through American accents, they became known as Cajuns. Combining two groups that turned nothing into something as the inspiration for your cooking style sounds like a good idea to me.
Patterson is not only well-versed in the history of her predecessors, she also takes notice of the history being made in the present. She knows why there’s been a boom in Louisiana-style cooking all over Texas. “It’s simple really; following Hurricane Katrina, many families and individuals from Louisiana relocated to Texas and they brought the flavors of the Bayou with them,” Patterson says. “Since then, we’ve seen an uptick in Cajun-style food with the real flavors and seasonings of Louisiana, not to mention the low and slow cooking technique, become more available and familiar throughout North Texas.” Displaced Louisianaians are making their new neighborhoods in Texas feel like home.
For chef Terance Jenkins, his Louisiana roots played a major role when plotting out the menu for Restaurant Beatrice’s opening last spring. He knew he wanted to have a gumbo that honored Leah Chase, the late chef behind Dooky Chase’s restaurant in New Orleans. What he ended up creating a vegan green gumbo; a vegetable medley over white rice swimming in a liquid mixture, seasoned enough to draw your nose close to smell and the flavor leaving you wanting to sip every last drop.
Hundreds of miles and over a decade removed from his hometown of New Orleans, where he worked in the legendary Commander’s Palace kitchen, Jenkins reveres his memories of eating bowls of Chase’s Gumbo Z’Herbes. “Growing up in New Orleans, everybody knows Dooky Chase’s,” Jenkins says. “It’s an iconic landmark; any celebrity that would come into town back in the day would stop and have her food in the restaurant.” Jenkins recalls eating Chase’s gumbo, made with nine different types of greens, brisket, ham, and smoked and andouille sausage, on Holy Thursday during his childhood — the only day it was served. “I just remembered, trying to figure out what I was going to put in that slot for [the] vegan option,” Jenkins says. Making a dish famously associated with beef and pork meatless isn’t much of a shock today. But the history and purpose behind Chase’s gumbo is far more significant than the meat traditionally found in it.
Similar to North Oak Cliff, Treme — the New Orleans neighborhood where Dooky Chase’s is located — is the oldest predominantly Black neighborhood in the U.S. It’s home to the St. Augustine Church, believed to be the oldest African American Catholic church in the country. However, Dooky Chase’s is one of Treme’s oldest and most important landmarks — an upscale restaurant established in 1941 by and for Black people in the community. The food here is considered so good that under Jim Crow people were willing to break the law against Blacks and whites congregating together in order to eat there. Chase created Gumbo Z’Herbes for practicing Catholics like herself to enjoy before fasting on Good Friday. Today, Chase’s legacy continues on the Texas side of the state line, where new businesses are cooking the iconic Louisiana dish.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy the vegan gumbo on a mild December night. Celery, onions, and bell peppers, known as the “Holy Trinity” in Cajun and Creole cuisine, were present in my bowl, along with house-made vegan sausage made from Camellia red kidney beans, and an assortment of leafy greens; the stew was topped off with sprouts resting in a roux, a liquid combo of flour and oil, that’s stirred until it resembles the color of a chocolate bar. Never once was I jealous of my date’s bowl of gumbo that had shrimp and crawfish peeking from the top of her roux. We both knew that we were lucky to be in the presence of well-seasoned Louisiana cuisine that wouldn’t have been prepared properly before that night at any other restaurant.
Louisiana food is so embraced by Texans, it has also turned a Texas landmark into a welcome center for folks coming over to the Lone Star State. Brand favorites of the Bayou, like Frenchy’s and Big Easy Foods, share space with a frozen food that marries Cajun and Latinx cultures. George and Rubie’s Favorites: Texas Gumbo is the creation of George and Rubie Huerta. One day, Rubie asked her husband if he was making “Mexican gumbo” when she saw him removing leftovers from the fridge. George ran with the description and created a mix of sausage, crawfish, jalapenos, chicken, shrimp, and his family’s charro bean recipe. So far, they’ve been in business for 12 years, and in H-E-B the last nine. Mabrie Jackson, director of public affairs for H-E-B and Central Market, explains how their gumbo went from the Huerta household to grocery stores across Texas. “George and Rubie Huerta competed in our first ever ‘Quest for Texas Best’ contest in 2014.” Jackson says. Their unique gumbo brought diversity to the perception of what Louisiana food is and who can be its creator. Louisiana food made George and Rubie’s Favorites into a rarity, a Latinx- and woman-owned business, amongst their competition. Their item is a convenience for Louisiana foodies who love to keep a bowl of gumbo in the freezer for a later date. Only this time it can be enjoyed without standing over a pot on the stove cooking for hours or perfecting the color of the roux.
Louisianians moving into Texas is not a takeover, it’s just a continued tradition of Texas adopting another heritage unto its identity a la Tex-Mex. As Texas adopts those flavors and techniques of its neighboring state, it’s important to remember the history behind these cuisines. With the food closer to Texans, the history comes along as well that would be left behind as soon as tourists left the restaurant. I don’t think that many people realize that Louisiana culture is as tied to Africa as much as Texas culture is tied to Mexico. The word “gumbo” is derived from the West African word “ki ngombo,” which means “okra.” Okra was used as a thickener in gumbo by Creoles. It’s the traditional technique, but it’s not the only way to make it. Many argue their favorite way of cooking gumbo to be the superior technique. (There is even a debate of whether to eat it with rice or potato salad.) Ingredients might vary by the cook, says chef Patterson, but they all must have the same intention. “The beauty of food is that it doesn’t have to be one specific cuisine, as it has the ability to be multiple cuisines fused into something completely different. If you’re combining flavors or cuisines, it doesn’t mean that you’re compromising the authenticity, you’re simply evolving a dish into something new and unique.”
Yet, as Texas embraces and riffs on the cultural signifiers and cuisines of its neighboring state, it’s essential not to overlook the deep, complicated history behind those foods. And there are perhaps few states as invested in history as Texas. Can you think of another state that advertises its state flag as much or more? That same lone star flag design was waving as the flag of Texas, the independent country, before it became the 28th state. However, our shared history is currently under attack by the current Texas government. In 2021, Governor Abbott banned critical race theory — a framework that encourages us to recognize and examine how racism is embedded into our legal, political, and social systems — from discussion in K-12 public schools. In the last year, he’s encouraged state institutions and agencies to abstain from using DEI initiatives in their hiring process. Back in Shreveport, my Black Studies Association club held a Soul Food Luncheon for the faculty every Black History Month to teach us and them about the food of Black culture. Ignoring diversity, equity, and inclusion of new employees is discrimination of different backgrounds and will make the company potluck very boring.
Texans frequenting authentic Creole and Cajun restaurants might seem like a small feat, but they are aiding in the preservation of Louisiana history. Their conversations around the table may not be as dire as Dr. King’s dinner at Dooky Chase’s with New Orleans Civil Rights activists, but it’s a start in the right direction of civility. They are also moving a culture forward that was shaped by outsiders with nothing more than scraps of food, family, and hope. As chef Jenkins says, “Paying respect to a culture and trying to appropriate a culture are two different things. There are ways to be respectful and not harm the culture. Just like gentrification, it can be good if done properly. Pay tribute.”