First things first. Ken Wells is one of America’s best writers. That is simply a fact, not an opinion.
In his newest book, Gumbo Life, he has written another masterpiece of the genre called great writing. Mr. Wells has lived and written (chiefly as a journalist) all over the world. (Picture a died-in-the-wool Cajun living in London for several years.) His book “The Good Pirates of the Forgotten Bayous” is the best written work on Hurricane Katrina, a seminal event in the history of South Louisiana.
Gumbo Life is a paean to not only the ambrosia called Gumbo but also a love letter to his spiritual home and its people (what he calls the “Gumbo Belt). Mr. Wells, in addition to his excellence as a non-fiction writer, has penned the fiction Catahoula Bayou Trilogy of life in the Bayou Black region of South Louisiana (highly recommended). His feel for dialog and the nuances of the temperament and world-view of the region is not manufactured. He just steps into a time machine of his memories and must have taken his iPhone to record this stuff with such accuracy.
I am a life long resident of this Gumbo Belt. I have eaten gumbo for over 60 years and cooked many pots myself; what I knew about gumbo was that it is GOOD. This book completes my education.
In the first chapters, Mr. Wells respectfully and skillfully addresses the history and “modern” progression of this magnificent gift from God we call Gumbo. He deconstructs what we now call cultural appropriation of its name and roots, from the Native Americans and African-American slaves to the fortunate (for us) arrival of the Cajuns to my (as his) home in South Louisiana. In this section, Mr. Wells demonstrates his skill as a journalist, historian and erudite teacher. It is sometimes an academic ethnological treatise but most often a metaphor for the gumbo of the cultural blending of what makes American great.
Where Mr. Wells really shines is in the rest of the book, where he shares stories seeking an answer to the most important question to those who live in the Gumbo belt: Who makes the best gumbo?
In some sense, this focus is similar to Mark Kurlansky's, books on salt, milk and cod. In some sense it is similar to Rick Bragg’s recent book on the home cooking of his childhood in another part of the South. The difference is that Mr. Wells is a far superior writer and storyteller.
This book will make you laugh out loud and without pretension, will educate you on the life and beauty of what the blending of immigration has done for our country.
My only issue is on his insistence that his mama’s gumbo was the best. I respect his devotion to his mother, but unfortunately he did not have the privilege to taste my mama’s gumbo.
He is correct however that a chicken and sausage gumbo must have a dark roux and the file must be used while serving, not cooked in the gumbo. Mr. Wells is respectful of those who follow a different drummer, but as he and I know, they are wrong.
I also wish he had omitted his discovery that some put sweet potatoes in a gumbo. That is a fact I did not need to know.
This book is highly recommended.