Prolegomena To Any Future Gumbo.

West Africa parades Benin, Burkina Faso, the island nation of Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, the island of Saint Helena, Senegal, Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe and Togo.  West Africa remembers the empires of Ghana, Mali, Oyo, and Benin.  West Africa cooks Yassa, Maafe, and Fufu. In The Mind of a Chef, Sean Brock explores the history of gumbo, tracing it back to West Africa.

The word Gumbo is related to the word for okra in some West African languages. And the idea of Gumbo – of a rich stew (often fish based) thickened by okra originated in West Africa as well. The notion and traditions of this stew traveled to Louisiana with the West Africans who were brought here and that has translated over time into what we know as “Gumbo”.

Interestingly, the original West African version of the stew did not contain any pork product. Instead, that smoky umami quality was brought together through dried smoked fish, considered both a staple and a delicacy in West Africa.

The African Slave trade took okra and forced people into fields around Charleston and other ports along the eastern coast of America, and with this a connection to the northeast coast of Brazil, “Bahia,” where slavers also brought West Africans and their culinary traditions.  This Afro-Brazilian cuisine features Portuguese, West African and native Brazilian foods and cooking techniques.  Coconut milk in Moqueca, peanuts in Vatapá,  dendê oil in all as well as seafood and tomatoes building a foodway that shares a great deal of items and architecture in the pot; and all of this, a memory of culture uniting Europe, Africa and the Americas.  To eat Gumbo or Marajoara is to become a human carrying those lands and people fused together.  Like jazz.  Like samba.

So the alchemy I’m bubbling in my lab mixes gumbo, moqueca and vatapá–a dish with taste and cosmopolitanism on its tongue and in its mind.  The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook features recipes for Creole Filé, Turkey Gumbo, Squirrel or Rabbit Gumbo, Okra Gumbo, Crab Gumbo, Oyster Gumbo, Shrimp Gumbo, Shrimp Gumbo Filé, Green or Herb Gumbo, and Cabbage Gumbo.  Brazilian Cookery Traditional and Modern by Margarette Andrade cites Shrimp and Fish Moqueca, while offering Vatapá Naná Sá, Vatapá Renata Aragão Silveira, Chicken Vatapá.  I’m going to take a bit from here, bit from there so let’s start cooking and as with most of my cooking, let’s make a stock.


Fish heads and crab shells, the basis for any seafood stock across the Americas.  Oh yes, also a fine moment to read Kant.  Continuing with his thoughts on space and time, Kant moves in the direction of Gestalt psychology in knowing the part always becomes within a whole.

Space is the form of the external intuition of this sensibility, and the  internal determination of any space is possible only by the determination of its external relation to the whole of space, of which it is part (in other words, by its relation to external sense).  (286)


Each bay leaf, juniper berry, cilantro leaf and so on reveals itself defined already within the world of cooking, its definition shared with other pods and stems.  “Not things in themselves but representations of our sensuous intuition,” offers Kant and then goes on to conclude “that all bodies, together with the space in which they are, must be considered nothing but mere representations in us, and exist nowhere but in our thoughts.”  (288)


I really love this part, melting butter into a chestnut shine, then adding red palm oil.  Oh, the continents at play.  Now, this knowing only within a matrix creates gaps between the system and the thing unto itself, space and separation between what I think something is and what it actually is in itself.

I say that things as objects of our senses existing outside us are given, but we know nothing of what they may be in themselves, knowing only their appearances i.e., the representations which they cause in us by affecting out senses.  (289)


I add diced onions and the tell-tale sizzle means the game is a-foot.  Also, so begins a series of “gaps” that will captivate philosophy down to current contemplating.  Graham Harman writes in Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy,

The philosophy of Kant  proposes a gap between appearances and things-in-themselves, with no chance of a symmetry between the two; the things-in-themselves can be thought but never known . . . Alternatively, we might hold that there are individual objects on one side and the various qualities of those objects on the other.  David Hume denounced this gap, reducing unified objects to nothing more than a bundle of qualities.  There is no such thing as an apple, just many different qualities that occur together so regularly that through force of habit we call them an “apple.”  (2-3)

Lovecraft?  Here’s a taste of land and water meeting in The Shadow over Innsmouth.

The first-person narrator Robert Olmstead finds what repulses and horrifies him resides in his very nature, in his family.  The “Other” often reveals itself to be what we are, even if we consider it monstrous.  There is no gap between your “humanity” and “monstrosity.” In Hume’s terms, there are behaviors across a spectrum, not necessarily a unified “human being.”  Time for okra also known as “Ladies’ Fingers.”


I love cooking with these pods, with their stickiness inside offering a thickener to any sauce.  It’s clear from the previous post and the above quote that Kant and Harman have an interest in Hume, especially concerning causation as with An Abstract on a Treatise of Human Nature.

We are determined by custom alone to suppose the future conformable to the past. When I see a billiard ball moving towards another, my mind is immediately carried by habit to the usual effect, and anticipates my sight by conceiving the second ball in motion. There is nothing in these objects, abstractly considered, and independent of experience, which leads me to form any such conclusion; and even after I have had experience of many repeated effects of this kind, there is no argument which determines me to suppose that the effect will be conformable to past experience. The powers by which bodies operate are entirely unknown. We perceive only their sensible qualities: and what reason have we to think that the same powers will always be conjoined with the same sensible qualities?  (131)

Consider the gumbo.  Any cause and effect for this recipe occurs across many centuries, several countries, hundreds of fields, miles of seacoast, and thousands of kitchens.


Time to add celery and green pepper to form the Holy Trinity of Southern Cooking, and then add some red jalapeño–truly an international dish, which brings us to a key ingredient of a vatapá–nuts.


I’ve roasted a panful of cashews and they’re ready to join the party.


Where has Kant landed with all his conjectures so far?

My doctrine of the ideality of space and time, therefore, far form reducing the whole sensible world to mere illusion, is the only means of securing the application of one of the most important cognitions (that which mathematics propounds a priori) to actual objects and of preventing its being regarded as mere illusion.  (292)

I would also add another synthetic form of thought, that is metaphor.  Rather than relegating metaphorical logic to phantasms of the brain as is Plato’s choice in The Republic, though he continues to use figurative language and parabolic logic, we can, paraphrasing Kant, show metaphor’s “unquestionable validity with regard to all the objects of the sensible world just because they are mere appearances.”  (292)


Ah, our fish stock.  Hours later it’s a beautiful, shimmering lake of what falls away from simmering bones, skin, flesh, leaves, stalks, seeds, and berries.


Add stock to our sauce, pour in a can of coconut milk for our moqueca offering, and let the pot simmer away.  And this is where, at the end of the “First Part” of Kant’s thoughts on metaphysics, I arrive at a term suited to this post, recipe and metaphysics itself, a term I believe Borges would approve–“transcendental idealism.”  To do this and mix things up a bit, I’ve changed to a translation of Kant’s work by Gary Hatfield.

For what I called idealism did not concern the existence of things (the doubting of which, however, properly constitutes idealism according to the received meaning), for it never came into my mind to doubt that, but only the sensory representation of things, to which space and time above all belong; and about these last, hence in general about all appearances, I have only shown: that they are not things (but mere ways of representing), nor are they determinations that belong to things in themselves. The word transcendental, however, which with me never signifies a relation of our cognition to things, but only to the faculty of cognition, was intended to prevent this misinterpretation. But before it prompts still more of the same, I gladly withdraw this name, and I will have it called critical idealism. But if it is an in fact reprehensible idealism to transform actual things (not appearances) into mere representations, with what name shall we christen that idealism which, conversely, makes mere representations into things? I think it could be named dreaming idealism, to distinguish it from the preceding, which may be called visionary idealism, both of which were to have been held off by my formerly so-called transcendental, or better, critical idealism.  (293-94)


I’ve used Kant’s less preferred “transcendental” because it appears more honest about the project, rather than the commonplace and unrevealing word “critical.”  So, my transcontinental, transtemporal, transcultural, transdisciplinary, transcendental gumbo/moqueca/vatapá awaits shrimp.


I shell large, Gulf Cost shrimp and spoon them into the pot until they curl slightly and turn pink and white.  Time to serve.  Toss a few cilantro leaves on top and we’re ready to eat.  Serving this to Demian, Gabriela and her brother Lucas in from Brazil.  International hospitality.  Next up as I continue to read Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Vichyssoise.  Bon Appétit!