Gran’s Seafood Gumbo

For one local historian, memories of gumbo and his grandmother are forever intertwined.

John Sledge's grandmother, Mary Frank Sledge

Mary Frank Sledge, circa 1935. Image courtesy John S. Sledge.

If there is one dish that defines Mobile, by my lights, it is seafood gumbo, more specifically, my grandmother’s recipe. During childhood visits to Georgia Cottage where she lived amid a glory of antiques, paintings and fantastic history, no memory endures so strongly as the rich smell of seafood gumbo that permeated those premises. At dinnertime, we all eagerly gathered around a steaming tureen to ladle the tasty concoction onto the fluffy white rice in our bowls. And the taste! Oh, my goodness — roux simmered to mouth watering perfection, big, sweet shrimp, the okra never slimy.

I do not know how Gran came by her recipe, whether by trial and error or from a Creole cook named Rose whom she employed during the 1950s. While impossible to prove, my bet is that Rose imparted the magic. Every major ethnic group that lived here contributed something special to gumbo’s evolution — the Indians, seafood and filé; Europeans, the roux; and Africans, the okra and rice — but it was Mobile Bay’s Creoles, especially noted for their mastery of the mix, who brought it into many other families’ kitchens. 

Unfortunately, I have no memories of Rose, who passed when I was yet a baby, but I like to think that her legacy, and Gran’s, lives on with that recipe. Happily, the Junior League of Mobile included it on page 40 of their oft-reprinted 1964 cookbook, “Jubilee.” Mrs. Horace Spottswood, a fast family friend, contributed the recipe for Gran. Shamefully, I have never tried my hand at it. Perhaps I am too fearful of failing to recapture its essence, so firmly shrouded in nostalgia. Whenever I pick up shrimp, my wife, Lynn, and I either just barbecue them, boil them up with some Zatarain’s, corn and new potatoes, or Lynn will make shrimp Creole, at which she positively excels. But that is another story!

Mrs. Edward Sledge Sr.’s Seafood Gumbo

Mrs. Edward Sledge Sr.’s Seafood Gumbo
Gran’s Seafood Gumbo

Serves 4-6
5 tablespoons bacon drippings
6 tablespoons flour 
2 onions, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups celery, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced 
1 28-ounce can tomatoes
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
5-6 cups water
3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 pounds peeled shrimp* 
1 package frozen chopped okra
1 pint fresh oysters
3 tablespoons
Worcestershire sauce

2 cups cooked rice

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1. Heat a large Dutch oven or pot over medium-high heat. Add bacon drippings and flour and stir constantly until flour turns dark brown, being careful not to burn.

2. Add onions, celery and garlic, and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, water, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to a medium-low and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. 

3. Add shrimp, okra and oysters, and cook 20 minutes longer. Add Worcestershire and stir well. Serve over rice.

* Shrimp may be substituted with fresh crab meat. 

John S. Sledge’s “Mobile and Havana: Sisters Across the Gulf” with coauthor Alicia García Santana and photographers Chip Cooper and Julio Larramendi will be published March 2024. 

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