For me, one of the benefits of working in film and TV is getting to judge contests. So far, I’ve judged a beauty pageant in Mississippi, the Royal Sonesta’s Greasing of the Poles and last year’s gumbo contest at Valero. As much as I enjoy beautiful women, I was thrilled to be asked back to Valero this year. Gumbo, the official dish of Louisiana, is my favorite metaphor for New Orleans – a melting pot where each ingredient added is meant to retain its original flavor. Even the history of the dish is a trip through the many cultures that have come to this city and the traditions they’ve added to our stew.
Slave trade ships in the early 1700’s brought rice cultivation. Germans brought sausage-making in 1721. Canary Islanders introduced cayenne in the 1760’s. Gumbo was created in the 1700’s by combining cooking practices from French, Spanish, Italian and Choctaw people. Africans brought okra by 1800. In 1803, Pierre Clément de Laussat, the last Governor under French rule, held the first recorded gumbo “contest.” Gumbo has always connected me to my own roots but judging the gumbo contest helps connect me to the history of this region.
My family’s gumbo is a dark, not-so-thick filé gumbo over rice and I hold that comforting hearty recipe as the “10” by which all other gumbos are judged. The jambalaya judging panel the day before had Saints and other non-chefs, but I was the only non-chef on the gumbo panel. It was a bit intimidating to realize the other 4 judges had much better food educations than I do but I tried to remember that Saints are mostly from other states and may never even have a tasted a proper gumbo before. In the end, my favorite won 2nd place so I couldn’t have been too far off.
The contest is part of a tremendous annual United Way sponsored fundraiser where the employees of the local Valero refinery give money to a variety of St. Charles Parish charities through paycheck pledges, games, golfing and the “tips” they leave to vote for their favorite dish. The food tips alone raised around $3000. The total is still being tabulated but between employee donations and 50% matching funds, it’s somewhere around $650,000 so far. Remarkably, that comes out to about $1000 per employee! As I watched teams playing “Family Feud” complete with buzzers, a screen with answer windows and the “X’s” with accompanying sound effect, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen people have so much fun giving their money away.
Frankly it was inspirational. And I loved looking around the room at the tables of the different charities standing to benefit from this annual event. There were smaller non-profits like Alpha Daughters of Zion, an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence and their children, and well-established charities like the Girl Scouts and Second Harvest. Between the warmth of the gumbo, the warmth of the hearts in the room and the heat outside, I was ready to end my day with a snoball.
Whether filé or okra, blond roux or chocolate, rice or potato salad, seafood or traditional chicken and andouille, gumbo is hearty damn-good-eating. It was wonderful fun working with Joseph Grey of Porter and Luke’s, Ryan Gall, Executive Chef at TPC Louisiana and personal chefs and caterers, Kenneth Temple (504-495-8108) and Will Jones (504-782-7305).
Next up – I’ll be judging the Queen of Burlesque contest on September 20th during the New Orleans Burlesque Festival (Sept. 18-21) along with Leslie Zemeckis, director of the documentary Behind The Burly Q, and author of the book by the same name (and wife of director Robert Zemeckis). I can’t wait!