Mama always told me the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I actually didn’t find that to be true in many places I’ve lived, but it’s definitely true in Louisiana. You see, down there, it’s all about the food. We think about it; we talk about it; we plan parties around it; we plan supper while we’re eating lunch; and, yes, we have festivals around food. There’s the Jambalaya Festival, the Oyster Festival, the Tomato Festival and plenty more. And, now, on a smaller scale is Watson’s Bird and Sausage Gumbo Cookoff.
This one started off in my childhood friends’ backyard three years ago. My childhood friends Bobbi Jo and Berlin, who are living in sin in my hometown, decided they needed to provide some entertainment for the folks in Watson. Now, mind you Watson is a lot bigger than it used to be. It was a teeny tiny town when I graduated in 1979 with about 3 stores, two stop signs and a school. When I tell people I’m from Louisiana, they always ask if I’m a Cajun. “No,” I answer, “I’m a hick from Watson.” Watson has become a thriving metropolis with a Walmart and a Starbucks. With those two markers, they have become big time. So, anyway, Bobbie Jo and Berlin held the first cookoff in their backyard, and about 150 of the local Watsonites showed up. The next year, they had about 500. Saturday, at the third annual Bird and Sausage Cookoff, I hear tell they had about 2000 rednecks and John Folse, a local celebrity cookbook author and chef, in attendance. Woooeeee…. that was a good time!
I showed up about noon with my parents. We walked around as people arrived on the scene at Double D’s Daiquiri shop in Watson. Parking was quite a challenge, and cars were parked all along the highway coming and going. I know the locals will talk about this event for a long time. Right after I got there, people started coming up and introducing themselves to me. You see, I haven’t seem most of them in about 30 years, and I really didn’t recognize many. People change a lot in 30 years. My friend Barry sort of assigned himself as my narrator. You know the old show, “This is Your Life?” I felt like I was in an episode. Barry would haul somebody over to me and ask, “Do you know who this is?” I’d look really hard at their faces. I knew somebody I knew was in there somewhere. Nine times out of ten, I’d say no. “I have no idea.” Then, Barry would laugh and tell me who it was, and we’d all have a big laugh. It was fun.
The judges were a secret until they showed up, so nobody knew my Dad was a judge. Daddy was the local sports columnist all my life, and so he’s sort of a local celebrity, especially among the athletically inclined. And, everybody in Louisiana is a Saints or an LSU fan. So, everybody knows my Daddy. I’d tell an old friend that Mama and Daddy were here, and their face would light up! “Mr. Sam is here?” they’d ask incredulously. I’d point him out with his cigar and his hat, and they’d rush over to play the same game with him. “Do you know who I am?” they’d ask. I’d see Daddy shake his head and look flustered. This went on all day. It was really cool to see the affection my old school chums had for my Dad. And, most were just as excited to see Mama because she fed half of them after school the whole time we were growing up. We lived right across the street from school, so everybody would head over and eat all of our food.
John Folse showed up to judge the gumbo cookoff about 2 or so. Bobbi Jo said he really knew what he was doing, and the five judges finished judging the gumbo teams’ offerings in record time. They gave out first, second and third place, but I know I had my own favorites. For $10 you could buy an armband and taste all the gumbos. Most booths had more than that, and I had BBQ chicken, sausage, king cake, duck gumbo and several other chicken and sausage gumbo renditions. I could have had cracklins’ but I saw them cutting up the big slab of pig fat and throw it in the fryer, and the athlete in me just couldn’t go there. But, I’m sure it was good, and I’m sure it was gone.
There was music. There was dancing. There was beer, daiquiris and lots of other adult beverages. There were kids getting their faces painted. There were booths decorated for Mardi Gras, Tiger Football and one called the Redneck Yacht Club that featured overweight rednecks, fake dead animals, lots of food and some beautifully painted signs. And, there was gumbo. Supposedly, 38 gumbo chefs showed up to simmer that amber brew for the crowd. My friend Robbie had some great gumbo that had just the perfect amount of spice. He also looked rather spiffy in his goatee and hat. I remember the “regular” grownups that we always saw growing up, and I had the thought that we are now those grownups. My friends are the characters that the kids around there will remember as the mainstays in the community.
I’d love to mention all my friends and say something fun about them, but then this would be a novel because there were so many. Some were obviously missing due to death – Jerry, Mike and Dick – to name a few. I couldn’t help but think of them and how they would have enjoyed this. I did meet Dick’s son. And, I met a lot of my friends’ kids. I saw my friend Jean Ann’s daughter across the way before I saw Jean Ann. She was a dead ringer for the long-haired lanky friend I had in high school. There was no mistaking the mother of that child. I saw my old neighbor Artie whose family’s drag racing kept us up at night in the 60s. He said he still has a passion for it, but with kids in school, he has to work on their cars instead of indulging himself in his expensive hobby. His wife, Lisa, was as sweet and beautiful as ever.
I was reflecting on the yesterday, and I thought how an event like that is very much like gumbo itself. Gumbo is a dish that takes a long time to cook. The roux is probably the most important ingredient, and it takes simmering flour, oil and butter for a very long time on a low heat being VERY careful not to burn it. It caramelizes and turns into a dark mahogany thickening agent. I imagine that the planning for this event was very much like making that roux. All of the time that the team put in making sure that it all got planned perfectly being very careful not to over do it or worse, not spend enough time on it. When the roux is done, the ingredients are added – the broth, the meat, the okra, the spices – much like the ingredients were added Saturday – the music, the people, the history, all the elements that made it special. And, the gumbo cooks. It simmers. It makes its own flavor. It’s unique, and no gumbo is ever the same. The spices deepen. The vegetables disintegrate and become a part of the gumbo. The meat melts into just the softest “melt in your mouth” taste experience. The rice is cooked. When it’s all said and done, everyone enjoys it and overindulges – much as they did Saturday. And, the best part about gumbo…….it’s even better the next day. Everything melds together into something heavenly and special, and it is perfect. Memories of days like yesterday are like that. They are almost……almost..…better than the real thing. C’est bon, y’all. C’est bon.