Thomas-Greenfield, a 35-year veteran of the Foreign Service, explained how she would invite her counterparts in countries such as Nigeria into her home to cook and eat together: “I put a Cajun spin on it. … It was my way of breaking down barriers, connecting with people and starting to see each other on a human level. A bit of lagniappe is what we say in Louisiana.”
Still, like many who make gumbo regularly, she faced a hurdle when The Washington Post asked her to share her recipe. “I don’t have one,” said Thomas-Greenfield, who is awaiting a Senate confirmation hearing that could have her following in the footsteps of George H.W. Bush, Madeleine Albright, Andrew Young and Susan Rice. “I’ve never cooked gumbo from a recipe. I learned it from watching.”
The career diplomat is used to finding ways around obstacles, however, so she simply walked herself through the process, jotting down do’s and don’ts, going into detail when she felt it was essential and loosening the reins where she could. While she’s all about flexibility, she does have strong opinions when it comes to gumbo: “Do not use tomato paste or sauce. I hate red gumbos. … Gumbo should have a nice brownish color.”
“Each time I make gumbo, it’s different,” she said. “No two gumbos are alike, and that goes for others who make gumbo, as well.”
Thomas-Greenfield, 68, has had plenty of opportunity to share her gumbo around the world, including in Gambia, Kenya, Jamaica, Liberia, Pakistan and Switzerland. She began working in the Foreign Service under President Ronald Reagan, then served as ambassador to Liberia under President George W. Bush and assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Barack Obama. She retired from the State Department in 2017, after the inauguration of President Trump.
Thomas-Greenfield said she is eager for the appointment to Biden’s Cabinet because it will “give me an opportunity to really bring back to our foreign policy the relationships and the values that have been so key to our success as a country. Those values that I think relate to gumbo diplomacy are generosity, hospitality, its kindness … all of that.”
She first heard the phrase “gumbo diplomacy” from a fellow Foreign Service officer and realized that’s what she had been practicing throughout her career. “When we were living overseas, we had staff who were supporting us, but if I had people over to my house and I really wanted them to enjoy the meal, I’d cook myself,” she said. “I’d make red beans and rice, or gumbo, and it was always a conversation.
“It causes people to relax. You’re sitting around. You’re talking about food. You’ve had this really important conversation around human rights. Now, you’re having a conversation about what you put in your gumbo and what a roux actually is, but you’re also talking about a certain issue happening in a country.”
If she had not become a diplomat, Thomas-Greenfield said she may have ended up behind a stove, because she comes from a long line of people who love to cook — and eat — good food. “We’re all cooks,” she said of her family in Louisiana. “We all send pictures to each other of the last gumbo we made or whatever dish we’re making.”
When she was 12, the oldest of eight children, she worked as a dishwasher for her grandmother, who cooked for a Salvation Army summer camp, earning $1.25 an hour.
“She cooked three meals for 500 people. I learned by assisting her,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
In her hometown of Baker, La., her mother was a public school cook and her father a day laborer, and from them, she learned the unifying power of food.
“We were a poor family, but the one thing we never had an issue about was food,” she said. “My father’s goal in life was that ‘my children will never go to bed hungry.’ ”
In fact, he often doled out food to neighbors and friends, too. Her mother would cook inside, and her father would fire up a homemade barbecue grill in a shady spot across the road from their home they simply called “under the tree.”
“We never had a meal where it was just us,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “People would say, ‘The Thomases are cooking,’ and they would show up at our house.”
Thomas-Greenfield didn’t consider herself a good cook until she left home and had to fend for herself. “I just thought about what they did, or sometimes I’d call my mother and she, of course, never had recipes either. It was rote for her. I always found that my stuff never tasted as good as hers.”
She graduated from a segregated Northwestern High School in Zachary in 1970 and was one of a few African American women to attend Louisiana State University in the early 1970s. After earning a master’s in political science from the University of Wisconsin in 1975, she taught at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania before joining the Foreign Service in 1982.
Her parents are deceased, but her brothers and sisters still live in and around Baton Rouge. Her nomination stirred pride among her friends and family back home, she said. “They are so extraordinarily proud that a girl from the segregated South actually achieved a position of this importance.”
Now gumbo is rote for Thomas-Greenfield.
“I love browning roux,” she said. “I can do it really, really quickly. People watch me brown roux and get it the perfect color in 20 minutes, but I never tell people to do that, because if they do, they will burn it. You can’t turn your back on it one second. The badge of a Louisiana cook is a roux burn, the roux popping up and burning you.”
And, because she lived in so many foreign lands, she’s learned to make gumbo with what’s available. “If I don’t have okra, I don’t use okra. When I was overseas in Africa, I never could get celery. If someone was coming to visit me in Nigeria, I’d say, ‘Bring me a stalk of celery.’ ”
When she was living in Gambia, a group of visiting NASA officials brought her a suitcase full. That was no problem. She just chopped the celery and froze it with the other elements of the “holy trinity,” the Cajun mirepoix of onion, celery and bell pepper also referred to in her nomination acceptance speech.
These days, Thomas-Greenfield makes a healthier version of gumbo for her family, which includes a daughter who works in the Foreign Service and a son who is an attorney. Her husband, whom she met in Liberia while in graduate school, is retired from the Foreign Service.
She toasts the flour to brown it instead of making an oil-based roux, bakes rather than fries the chicken, and microwaves the sausage and then drains as much fat from it as possible. Still, she admits the old-school recipe she shared with us below produces a tastier pot.
When she has time, she likes to cut up a whole chicken for her gumbo, like her mother did, so “she’d know all of the pieces come from the same bird.”
She can whip a gumbo up in a couple of hours, if necessary, but she prefers to let it simmer longer, allowing plenty of time to slip a batch of cornbread in the oven and make the rice.
Gumbo is a great example of how great things can come from being flexible and resourceful, she said.
“People will say ‘I can’t make gumbo because I don’t have filé,’ or because I don’t have celery, or ‘I can’t have this conversation with you because I haven’t gotten instructions,’ ” she said. “You will never have 100 percent of what you need to get to the point of negotiation, and you may never have everything you need to make the perfect gumbo. You just work with what you have at the table.”
Chicken, Sausage and Shrimp Gumbo
Make Ahead: The “trinity” — onions, bell pepper and celery — can be chopped and the sausage and chicken can be cooked up to 3 days ahead.
Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 4 days; or remove the crab claws, if using, and freeze in airtight containers for up to 3 months. Defrost in the refrigerator, if frozen. Then, warm on the stove over a low heat.
Where to Buy: Crab claws may be available at seafood markets or restaurants. Creole seasoning and filé powder, which is ground sassafras leaves, are available at well-stocked grocery stores and online.
- 3 quarts no-salt-added chicken broth, plus more as needed
- 2 bay leaves
- 10 to 12 crab legs or claws (optional)
- 2 pounds andouille sausage or any smoked sausage, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 large), cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder, or more to taste
- 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning, such as Tony Cachere’s, or more to taste
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco, or more to taste and for serving
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup canola oil, or any neutral oil
- 1 large yellow onion (about 10 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 2 cups)
- 3 large celery ribs, cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)
- 1 large green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)
- 1 pound okra, sliced, defrosted if frozen
- 3 garlic cloves, minced or grated
- 1 (10-ounce) can Rotel brand Tomatoes and Green Chiles, or any small diced tomatoes
- 2 pounds medium peeled/deveined tail-off shrimp (41 to 50 count), defrosted if frozen
- Cooked white rice, for serving
- 1/4 cup chopped curly or flat-leaf fresh parsley leaves or scallions, for serving
- Filé powder, optional, for serving (see headnote)
In a large stock pot over medium-high heat, add the broth, bay leaves and crab, if using, and bring to a simmer. Decrease the heat to low to keep hot.
Set a paper towel-lined plate near the stove. In a large skillet over medium high heat, lightly fry the sausage until just browned, about 10 minutes. Transfer to the prepared plate. Remove the skillet from the heat, but do not clean.
In a medium bowl, toss the chicken pieces with the garlic powder, Creole seasoning and hot sauce. Return the skillet to medium-high heat, add the chicken pieces and cook through, about 8 minutes.
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, such as a Dutch oven, over medium-high heat, add the oil and then gradually add the flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until you have a beige paste. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking and stirring constantly until the roux is dark chocolate-brown, about 30 minutes, adjusting the temperature up or down as needed.
(The timing here will vary depending on your stove as well as the pan you are using; the most important thing is to not let any portion of the roux scorch, and to stir constantly until you’ve reached the desired color. If it burns, throw it out and start over.)
Add the onions, celery and bell pepper to the darkened roux, stir until fully coated and cook until just softening, 5 to 7 minutes. Add in half the okra and the garlic, and cook until the okra begins to soften 5 to 10 minutes, stirring as needed and lowering the heat if it begins to stick. (If the okra was frozen, it will probably soften more quickly.)
Increase the heat under the broth to high, add the roux and vegetables to the broth, bring to a boil and boil for about 5 minutes. Add the sausage and chicken with any accumulated juices, the remaining okra and the tomatoes and boil for another 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to low, cover and let the gumbo simmer, at least 45 minutes and up to 2 hours.
Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more garlic powder, Creole seasoning or hot sauce as needed. If the gumbo is too thick, add more stock or water, 1/4 cup at a time until desired consistency.
About 10 minutes before serving, add the shrimp and cook until pink and cooked through, 5 to 10 minutes.
Scoop some rice into bowls and ladle the gumbo on top. Sprinkle with the parsley or scallions, if using, and serve with hot sauce and filé powder, if desired.
(Based on 12 servings)
Calories: 572; Total Fat: 37 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 197 mg; Sodium: 1326 mg; Carbohydrates: 16 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugar: 3 g; Protein: 45 g.
Recipe from Ambassador Linda Greenfield-Thomas.