As the sun sets on the small Cajun town of Scott, Louisiana, Sheriff Tommy Hebert labors with his young son, Noah, in the backyard garden of a brick farmhouse. The 50-year-old lawman is shirtless, exhibiting the kind of jagged musculature only a person who works the land can attain. He and Noah are gathering okra from a modest row Hebert plants each May and harvests throughout the summer. Using a Smith & Wesson pocketknife, Hebert slices off the end of a woolly pod that seems about a foot long and hands it to me. I've never tried raw okra before; it never occurred to me to do so. But when I bite into it, I decide it's something I'd like to do damn near every day. It's got a snap that leads to a taste reminiscent of fresh-cut grass. Hebert will stew some with tomatoes for dinner; the rest he'll slice up, freeze, and, when the weather cools this autumn, thaw to make a gumbo. According to him, you can't make a good one without it.
Most people down here will tell you that okra is the origin of the word gumbo. In her book New Orleans: A Food Biography (AltaMira Press, 2012), historian Elizabeth M. Williams attributes the term “gumbo” to Bantu-speaking West Africans, who brought okra seeds on slave ships. Their word for okra was ki ngombo. Other scholars believe gumbo is a deviation of the Choctaw Indian word kombo, for sassafras leaves, which tribal members ground up to make an aromatic powder called filé. While either okra or filé can be used to thicken gumbo, there are strong opinions as to which is best.