“And 1st place goes to….”. Every year at the Annual Watson Bird & Sausage Gumbo Cook Off, the crowd waits for those words. The anticipation is nerve racking. Everybody wants to know who won; who, on this day, had the best gumbo around. When the announcement comes, the celebration is boisterous and vocal. But, much like a beauty pageant, for the other competitors, it is bittersweet. You applaud and smile politely, giving a friendly nod to the winner. But in your heart, you are a little disappointed that it wasn’t your name that got called. I’ve been in that also ran group every year since this thing got started. But, that changed Saturday, January 30, 2015. Turns out that was OUR day!
The Annual Watson Bird and Sausage Cook Off is the brainchild and pet project of my friends Bobbi Jo and Berlin. They thought this up 6 years ago, mainly as just a way to get some friends together, have a good time, cook some good food and raise a little money for charity. The first year, it took place in their backyard. A total of 12 teams competed and the crowd was somewhere just south of 500 or so. Over the years, they built this event up. Four years ago, it got so big they had to move to a bigger venue. Now that venue is looking too small. This thing has grown to be “the” event of the Watson social season. (I know, I never thought I’d write that sentence either, but hey, times are a changing.)
Everybody looks forward to the event. It is a microcosm of what makes Louisiana, and Watson in particular, such a great place to live and raise a family. It brings together the three great cornerstones of what we are about around here. Good food, good friends and helping someone else who needs it. If you want to know more about the history and what happens at the cook off, you can read some of it here in my blog from last year.
Our team name Is Los Amigos, which is Spanish for “the guys”. My friend and partner in crime Calvin Jones and I cooked in the very first cook off and have made every one of them since. We have always had a lot of fun, but the closest we ever came to getting the brass ring and gumbo immortality was the second year, when we took second place. Calvin and I make a good team. I do all the planning and cooking and he brings all the beverages and handles the PR. This year our team also included my youngest son Joel, and some very useful technical help and advice from my son Matt and his friend Rich, who are both excellent cooks in their own right.
The funny thing is, I almost didn’t cook this year. After 5 years, there were a number of reasons why I thought I was going to sit it out this time. First, believe it or not, cooking in this thing Is hard work. There is all the prep work of getting everything together and getting it up there. Then on Saturday, you start before daylight, work all day and then have to clean up and pack up. Second, this is a very busy time of year for my wife, Jo Ann and I. The weekend of the cook off was looking like the only ‘free’ weekend we would have for about 3 months. And, to be honest, after 5 years of not winning, I was feeling a little sorry for myself. But that changed one night when Calvin asked me if we were cooking this year. I explained what I was thinking. His response was simple and to the point. “This will be the first year we ain’t cooked in it” Touche’ my brother. So the decision was made. Sign us up.
For the participants, the cook off experience usually starts on Friday evening, when you bring your tent and chairs to the grounds and claim your spot. Then, on Saturday morning, check in starts at 7:00 a.m. This year there were 50 teams competing. It looks like a small army, outfitted with all manner of cast iron pots, stainless steel boilers, propane burners and stoves, barbecue pits, ice chest full of chickens, ducks, sausage and onions and celery by the truckload. Thanks to Bobbi Jo and her dedicated staff, it is well organized and before 8 o’clock, everyone is in place and ready to go.
We got set up and were ready to get started. We were around some good people again this year. We were right next to our buddy Jeff Gill and his Daddy.
On the other side was Melissa, Heidi and “the girls”. Right on the other side of the Gills were some of my favorite local idiots. Jeff Betz and his crew, which this year included none other that “Big Sexy” himself, LOHS head coach Brett Beard.
As the siren announced it was time to start cooking, everyone got into action. Not long after that, the spectators started drifting in. For a contribution of $10, they got to stay all day, eat all the free food they wanted and pass a good time. And they come, young and old. If you want to see pretty much anybody and everybody in Watson, you should come on out to the Gumbo Cook Off.
Our recipe this year was simple chicken and andouille, with a little duck sausage. We took it slow, being patient and not rushing things. We boiled our chicken and used the broth to brew our own homemade stock. Then it was time to really start cooking and make our roux. Ask any Louisiana cook and they will tell you that making a roux is both an art and a science. It is just flour and oil, but it is the most important part of making gumbo. Like the foundation for a house, everything else rests on it and if you get it wrong, everything else is going to suffer. You have to get the fire hot, but not too hot. It needs to be dark, but not too dark. We got it going and started to stir. I even managed to get Calvin to stir the pot and he did a masterful job. I sort of felt bad that I had to keep stirring during the opening prayer and the National Anthem. But our roux was at a crucial stage, and everybody knows when that is happening, you keep stirring even if the house catches on fire.
Once the roux was just right, we started putting all the other ingridients together. Before long we had simmering pot of some of the best stuff you’ll ever put in your mouth. Then the trick was to be patient and not rush things. Go slow and let everything meld together. As we did that, we did some tasting and, with the help of Rich and Matt, made a few minor adjustments to the formula. After about 3 hours of simmering, we finally decided we had it right. Cut off the fire and put the lid on it. It’s ready.
While we were cooking, there was a steady procession of friends old and new. We went about our work, stopping often to visit and do a little talking.
We spooned out plenty of gumbo during the afternoon and got some good compliments. I also had a chance to walk around and check out some of the competition. They were all good and after tasting 7 or 8, it is hard to say which one you think is best. Finally 2:00 o’clock rolled around and it was time to submit our gumbo for judging. We spooned it up, dark and steaming hot. At that point, all you can do is just wait and see.
Bobbi Jo, Berlin and the wonderful staff they put together work really hard to make this event one of the best. The amount of work they put in is amazing, both before, during and after the event. The funny thing is, most of those folks are the same old Live Oak High people we’ve known all our lives. Makes me proud to be an Eagle. And, there is a lot more going on around here than just cooking gumbo. The staff runs a 50/50 raffle, sells t-shirts, aprons, caps and other ‘logo’ merchandise. They sell beverages and other stuff, the profits of which all go to designated charity. These people rock!
Finally about 3:30, it was time. The winners were going to be announced. The crowd gathers around the bandstand and dance floor and it begins. First, they announce the winner of the raffles. Then they give out awards for the best decoration and other special prizes. Then they introduce the judges. You never know who the judges are until they announce the winners. But, over the years, Bobbi Jo has done a great job of recruiting a roster of celebrity judges who know gumbo and Louisiana cuisine. One year, Chef John Folse was a judge. Others have included renowned cooks, food writers, media personalities and just plain folks who love to eat.
This year’s judges included some of my local culinary heroes. Duke Landry is a former neighbor of ours, whose family started the Don’s Seafood eateries, is a World Champion Oyster shucker and recently opened Watson’s newest restaurant, Duke’s Seafood. Kendall Day is a former cook off participant and owns and operates Day’s Smokehouse, one of the finest specialty meat establishments around. Ramona Addison manages and operates the deli at Oak Point Fresh Market in Watson. Each of these folks know food and put out some of the best tasting stuff I have ever put in my mouth. Other judges included Richard Condon, a food writer and a representative of Tony’s Seafood. Quite a line up if you ask me.
Then it was time. I have always told people that the announcing of the winners goes something like this: When the announce third place, everyone cheers and claps. When they announce second place, everyone cheers and claps, slapping the second place team on the back. Then they announce first place. Most of the crowds cheers and applauds, while 49 other cooks are saying “this is bulls**t!” Only in Louisiana!
Third place this year went to Donald Lambert and his team, Faithful Companions. Donald is married to one of my old schoolmates, Linda.
Second place went to Tom Peak and his team, Curve Ballers. Tom is an old Live Oak alumni and long time friend.
And then, they were making “the announcement”
“And 1st place goes to LOS AMIGOS!” Oh WOW! You gotta be kidding me! After six years we finally did it. It felt pretty good being up on stage, folks cheering, knowing that we were the winners.
Of course, some of my fellow competitors we happily yelling “this is bulls**t!” Hey man, it is what it is. It felt really good and we spent the rest of the evening celebrating and accepting congratulatory words from the patrons and other competitors. And we celebrated some more.
I was also proud that 1st, 2nd and 3rd place went to some old Watson folks. But what I was most proud of was the opportunity to participate again in such a wonderful event. I am pretty sure that the final donation this year, which goes to Quad Veterans Transitional Housing Program, will be in the 5 figure range. We might have taken taken home the plaque for first prize, but believe me, everyone was a winner!