Foraged vegetables created the restorative gumbo z’herbes
Early settlers around the country used teas concocted from things like rhubarb and nettles to cleanse the system. Other spring tonics ranged from sassafras tea to dandelion leaf potions to a vegetable mix of ramps and other herbs that were foraged from the new forest undergrowth. In Appalachia, with the coming of warmer weather, a noxious mixture of sulfur and blackstrap molasses was administered in a hold-your-nose-and-swallow potion designed to purify the blood, purge the body of the effects of the winter doldrums, and ready it for the brighter days to come.
As I was musing about historic spring tonics prepared from foraged herbs, I realized that I, too, have a ritual spring tonic—one that has for decades kept me healthy, happy, and facing forward into the new season. My spring tonic also has a connection to foraged herbs. And it, too, is taken once, at the beginning of spring. But in typical New Orleans fashion, instead of being administered to a reluctant victim with difficulty and admonitions, it’s a tonic consumed joyously and shared in good company.
My spring tonic is part of the vernal celebration held at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant on Holy Thursday, where the once-a-year green gumbo—gumbo z’herbes—is served up proudly and with great ceremony. I vividly remember my first cup of it, prepared by the late Mrs. Chase herself. I was introduced to it by New Orleans notables Lolis Eric Elie, his father Lolis Edward Elie, artist Ron Bechet, and the city’s late artistic luminary John Scott. It was unlike any other gumbo I’d had: a thick slurry of green vegetables punctuated with chunks of meat and topped with a scoop of fluffy white rice.
Mrs. Chase, or “Aunt Leah” as I was privileged to call her, gave me the story of the pre-Easter gumbo. Maundy (or Holy) Thursday, the day before Good Friday, is commemorated as the day of the Last Supper of Jesus and his apostles, and the last day meat would traditionally be consumed by practicing Roman Catholics, who fast until Easter Sunday. The Chase family gumbo z’herbes is rich with meats ranging from sausage to veal. A bowl of this gumbo is a very substantial dish indeed. (Though it is common today for Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays throughout Lent, it used to be the practice to abstain for the full duration of Lent, and older versions of gumbo z’herbes may have been meatless to accommodate this practice.)
Tradition dictates that the gumbo z’herbes should have an odd number of greens between nine and thirteen, signaling the number of new friends that would be made in the upcoming year. Some say that nine is the preferred number as it represents the number of churches that devout Roman Catholics visit on Good Friday celebrating the Way of the Cross. Mrs. Chase also told me that in days gone by, women foraged for wild greens on the neutral grounds, looking for dandelion leaves, wild chives, and pepper grass to add to their family gumbos.
When I first tasted the green gumbo, Holy Thursday was a low-key neighborhood celebration at the restaurant: a day when the Tremé cognoscenti and their friends gathered to share a cup or bowl before returning to their various occupations. All of that would soon change.
The following year, I asked a table of friends to join me. We celebrated with Easter decorations, place cards, and more than a few bottles of red wine to accompany the meal. Mrs. Chase would later tease me that before I arrived with my celebratory madness, people would come, “have their cup of gumbo and their piece of fried chicken, and go home.” She delighted in accusing me of coming and giving a bouzin—a Creole term for a knock-down-drag-out party. Well, bouzin it was, and it grew, and it became the traditional way that my friends and I marked the Easter season.
I was far from alone in this tradition; in the ensuing years, the small neighborhood gathering turned into a such a special event that people now fly in from out of town to savor the gumbo and the companionship. During COVID lockdown, the celebration continued, with people picking up orders that were delivered to their cars. The once-a-year gumbo and the attendant celebrations were even featured in an episode of the television series Tremé and have become so popular that there are now three separate Holy Thursday luncheon sittings that fully book up months in advance.
Spring is a potent thing. Spring may turn a young man’s fancy to thoughts of love, as Tennyson has it. But for this old girl, spring turns my fancy to thoughts of gumbo z’herbes.
Jessica B. Harris is the author, editor, or translator of eighteen books, including twelve cookbooks documenting the foodways of the African Diaspora. In March of 2020, she became a James Beard Lifetime Achievement awardee.