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The Geography of Gumbo: From One Pot, Many

  • Museum of Food and Drink 62 Bayard Street Brooklyn United States (map)

Gumbo is hotly contested ground, with many laying claim to its invention and tasty evolution. Some cooks use okra, some use filé, and some a roux as a gumbo thickener.. Some use sausage and chicken, some shellfish, and some a combination of both. No matter which way you cook it, this dish reflects the culinary story of America; as Dr. Jessica Harris points out, gumbo is "a case where these parts make an extraordinary whole without totally melting.” Or as Ken Wells writes in his new book, Gumbo Life, gumbo “is the story of jazz but writ in food.” 

Though Louisiana is its symbolic home, the geography of this rich soup is as varied as its ingredients. The word gumbo itself comes from the word for okra in the Bantu languages of West Africa. Filé, or ground sassafras leaves, is a Choctaw ingredient. Roux is a French technique by way of Creole and Cajun cooks.

And how do other one pot dishes compare? Is it still gumbo if it is made in Missouri, Chicago, or Brooklyn? Come learn about the ins and outs of gumbo from our panel featuring Nicole Taylor, Adrienne Cheatham, and Ken Wells, and celebrate the launch of Wells’s Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou, which arrives just in time for Mardi Gras! 

An informal reception with book signing and a tasting of various gumbos will follow.

This program is part of our Eat•Drink•Read series, sponsored by W. W. Norton.



Ken Wells grew up on the banks of Bayou Black, Louisiana, fishing, wrangling snakes, and eating his momma’s gumbo. His first writing gig was covering car wrecks and gator sightings for his hometown weekly before going on to a journalism career that included 24 years on The Wall Street Journal. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and in his spare time, has penned five well-received novels of the Cajun bayous. Gumbo Life: Tales from the Roux Bayou, is his third book of narrative nonfiction. He lives in Chicago and loves to cook his momma’s gumbo recipe.



Chef Adrienne Cheatham grew up in the kitchens and dining rooms of the restaurants her mother managed in Chicago, Illinois. During her eight years at the three-Michelin star Le Bernardin, Adrienne made her way up the ranks, eventually becoming Executive Sous Chef. During that time she also worked with Chef Eric Ripert on his television show, Avec Eric, as well as the cookbook of the same name, testing and editing recipes. Adrienne went on to work with Marcus Samuelsson as the Chef de Cuisine of the Marcus Samuelsson Group, opening Streetbird, where she received a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide, and Marcus’ Bermuda before being promoted to Executive Chef at Red Rooster.

Adrienne competed on season 15 of Top Chef, making it all the way to the finale and finishing second out of 16 cheftestants. She has been featured as a speaker at Cherry Bombe Magazine’s annual Jubilee festival and was the subject of a New York Times documentary series titled “Tastemakers.” Passionate about nutrition, she works with Schwan’s as part of the Chef’s Collective to develop healthy food for school lunch programs. Adrienne has appeared in Food & Wine, US Weekly, Sports Illustrated online, Men’s Journal, Grubstreet, Eater, AM New York, among others. Adrienne shares a home in Harlem with her best friend and husband, Stephen Bailey. She is also the founder of SundayBest, a pop-up series held in secret locations around Harlem.



Georgia native Nicole Taylor spent her early twenties trying to distance herself from her Southern cooking roots, until a move “up” to Brooklyn gave her a fresh appreciation for the flavors of her childhood. The recipes in her deeply personal The Up South Cookbook , offer classic Southern favorites informed and updated by newly-discovered ingredients and different cultures. Along the way, she tells the story of her generation of home cooks, who are reclaiming their culinary heritage in a whole new way.

Taylor hosted Hot Grease, a food culture podcast, and is the principal of NAT Media. She has contributed to Esquire, Good Company, Epicurious, The New York Times, Edible Manhattan, Saveur, The Bitter Southerner, Extra Crispy, The Undefeated, Wine4Food, Civil Eats, Sheknows, First We Feast, Cherry Bombe, Amtrak, Gravy Quarterly, and Travel Noire. Her cookbook has been featured in The New York Times, Ebony Magazine, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and New Republic. She lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.