Saturday, I had the opportunity to participate in a great event, the 5th Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off. I had the privilege of cooking in the first Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off and have made every one since. I even won Second place one year, and I would not miss it for the world.
Last week, I wrote about our trip to Cafe’ des Amis in Breaux Bridge. One of the things I talked about was the Louisiana value of “Joie de vivre” or the joy of life. Another Cajun saying is ‘to live is to eat’. Both of those sentiments were very prominent in Watson on Saturday.
In case you don’t know about the Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cook Off, it is a big deal. It was started 5 years ago by Bobbi Jo and her husband Berlin. They were looking for something fun to do with friends around here around the first of the year. January is the ‘dead season’ in South Louisiana. After Christmas and before Mardi Gras is in full swing. It is also ‘gumbo weather’. So, they decided to throw a party at the barn behind their house, invite some people to come cook gumbo and pass a good time. And, they decided to make it a fundraiser for a worthy charity.
That first year, a couple of hundred people showed up, 15 teams cooked, first place paid $230, the proceeds went to St. Jude’s and everybody had a good time. Saturday, a couple of thousand people showed up, 50 teams cooked, first place paid $1000, the proceed went to Raven’s House, a shelter for homeless veterans and everybody had a good time. My how times change in a few years. And, at the same time, the more they stay the same in some ways.
Bobbie Jo and Berlin, who work very hard to put all this together!
The rules are simple and have never changed. Any type of bird and any type of sausage. No other meat of any kind. Make your own roux, no precooked ingredients. No glass, no pets, and no pets in glass bottles, please. Turns out it took a couple of years for some people to figure out that shrimp, crabs, oysters, tasso and the like are not a bird. But now everybody pretty much gets it. People often ask me what time does it start and when is it over. My answer is always the same. Cooking starts at 9:00, judging is at 3:00 and it ends sometime early Sunday morning with the Sheriff’s Office shows up and tells everyone it is time to “get the hell out of here and go home”.
The teams cooked and there were 4 live bands through out the day, and even a dance floor that got a lot of use. Supporters came out, paid $10 for an arm band that entitled you to taste all the gumbo you wanted, plus everything else that was being cooked by the teams, like jambalaya, barbecue, boudin, grilled chicken and burgers. There were games and a slide for the kids. You could even get a funnel cake or fried Oreos for $3, all proceeds going to Raven’s House. From the size of the crowd, it is an event most folks around here don’t want to miss.
My day started early. I got to the venue about 7:30 a.m. After the second year, it got to big to stay at Bobbi Jo and Berlin’s house, so it was moved to a bigger location. Although my day started early, it started even earlier for the staff, including my wife Jo Ann. They all got there about 6:00 a.m.
Some of the staff getting ready.
It still makes me proud that in a small community like Watson, so many people will give up their Saturday to make something like this happen and support a good cause.
I unloaded my stuff, set up my canopy and kitchen and got ready. It was a cold crisp morning, but the weather was beautiful and the sky clear. My first task for the day was to cook breakfast for the staff. I was ‘voluntold’ to do that by Jo Ann. I got started. Two dozen biscuits in the dutch ovens and a big Mountain Man meal in a cast iron pot. Mountain Man is real comfort food. Ground sausage, hash browns, a dozen eggs and 2 lbs of shredded cheese. Yes, it tastes as good as it sounds.
Got breakfast done and everybody full. Then it was time to start cooking gumbo!
I could smell the delicious aroma off cooks all around us getting the pot going.
My first step was to get my chickens ready for the pot. This year I decided to roast them in my infrared fryer and then de-bone them. Had them cooking and wasn’t long til they were ready.
We started cutting vegetables and slicing our good andouille sausage, so everything would be ready at the right time. About that time, the official photographer, The Picture Lady, came around taking team pictures. We posed for ours.
In case you were wondering, that good looking guy in the middle is me. The other two are my friend Calvin Jones and my youngest son Joel. My middle son Matt was also on our team. He helped us a lot later, but after a hard week, he slept in and missed the picture, so I took one of him myself.
With all the prep work done, it was time to get cooking. There are many great recipes in Louisiana. Funny thing is, at least half of the best ones all start with the same phrase “First you make a roux..” 3 cups of flour and 3 cups of oil, turn on the fire and we were ready to go.
Got the heat up and then, as Vernon Roger’s momma used to say, “Braise, braise, braise”, which in English means “Stir, stir, stir!” Before long we had a traditional Cajun brown roux.
Fried the onions and stuff, the it was time to put the ‘juice’ in.
Once we that simmering good, in went the bird and sausage.
Now all it needed was time to simmer and getting the seasonings right.
By this time, the party was really getting started. The first of the bands took the stage, people were lining in to get in and cooks were hard at it from one end of the place to the other.
And of course, as always, Bobbi Jo was keeping everything running smooth
“Move your car if you are parked on Arnold Road!”
Which brings us to what the Gumbo Cook Off is really all about. Yes, it is a fundraiser for a good cause. And, yes we serve up some good gumbo. But what it it really about is a good time with friends and family. Spending a nice day with friends you see all the time, reconnecting with old friends you haven’t seen in a long time, making new friends and spending some quality time with family. I would estimate that there were upwards of 2,000 people out there Saturday, and you could just look around and see they were all “passing a good time, Watson style”.
You always make some new friends at the Gumbo Cook Off. Saturday I noticed a guy standing near my pot, with a big smile on his face, just taking it all in. I did not know who he was but he obviously having a good time. When I was seasoning my gumbo, getting opinions, I asked him if he wanted to taste. He did and we struck up a conversation. He admitted that he was just standing by my pot because it smelled so good. Turns out he was a charter bus driver from Marrero, Louisiana, who had driven a group of people to a wrestling match at Live Oak High School. He was looking for something to do and heard about the Gumbo Cook Off. Like everyone else, he was having a blast, passing a good time, Watson style. Another interesting thing about this is that at least 3 of the 5 years, I have had the opportunity to serve some foreigner from “up North” their first taste of real, sho’ nuff gumbo. Saturday was no different.
That young man in the Michigan State shirt was there with his wife and a friend. They all teach at Glen Oaks High in Baton Rouge. He is a transplant from Detroit, ergo the Lions ski hat. He loved my gumbo and admitted that they ain’t got nothing like this in Motor City.
Later in the day, it was time to announce the winners. Actually, at that point it really didn’t matter, because everyone who participated was a winner, especially the displaced veterans at the Raven’s House. Just to show you how this works, one of the ‘prizes’ was the 50/50 Raffle. The lady who won claimed $757, and immediately handed the money back to Bobbi Jo to go the charity. You gotta love people from Louisiana. In case you are wondering, no I didn’t win anything, but like always, I went home with the real First Prize.
I went back Sunday morning to get the rest of my stuff and help Bobbi Jo and Berlin clean up. Bobbi Jo asked me how I thought it went. I told her it thought it went great, especially when I evaluate it like I do some of my wife’s extended family get togethers. Not too many people got real drunk, there were no fights, the cops only got called out once, nobody went to jail or the emergency room and everybody had fun. I would call that a successful day!! If you understand that analysis, maybe you should check out the Gumbo Cook Off next year. If you don’t, maybe you should avoid the Gumbo Cook Off and any future Herrington family reunions.
Cest la vie!