Texas is proud of its culinary heritage — a figurative and literal melting pot of cultures and signature dishes known the world over. Drawing discerning foodies from around the world, the Lone Star State is no longer catering only to those with a taste for barbecue.
Kitchens are serving up creations by world-renowned chefs and recipes handed down for generations are known in every corner of the state.
It appears our palate is expanding again, with help from Texas transplants from Cajun country. On Saturday, March 5, I got to help judge a ranking of the best gumbo served up in 2016.
Just a few miles from the iconic oil derricks of Kilgore, you’ll find a tiny United Methodist Church on a rural county road in the Pirtle community. That’s also where you’ll become mesmerized by the smells of dark roux, smoked sausage, and a host of spices come together in a friendly battle for bragging rights.
The Official Texas Gumbo Cook-Off was started by the church’s pastor, Rev. Dudley Plaisance, who grew up in south Louisiana. Each year, more than a dozen entrants serve up bowls of their best gumbo to crowds of hungry East Texas looking to sample this staple of Cajun culture.
Many teams arrive early to brown their roux, a mixture of flour, oil, and spices which becomes a thickening agent and flavoring for the dish. The stakes are high, with reputations and a $500 cash prize on the line in this competition. Everything must be cooked on-site and ready for sampling by 11 a.m., when the judges are sequestered and samples are delivered for a taste test.
After receiving our official scoring sheet, the judging rules were explained. The aroma that filled the room was intoxicating. So many distinct smells reminded me of years spent in my grandparents’ kitchen, watching as gumbo stewed in a cast iron pot on their stove. As the samples were handed out one-by-one, we scored each using five criteria: aroma, brown color, consistency, taste, and aftertaste.
We cleansed our palates between samples, eating grapes, cheese, and crackers. Each recipe is scored on its own merit, which makes judging particularly challenging. Some of the entries stay with you, while others are ones you’d rather forget.
Having judged this competition in the past, I was particularly impressed by this year’s crop of 10 contestants. Some went the traditional chicken & sausage route, while others spiced things up with shrimp, blue crab, alligator, and oysters. Not all incorporate vegetables, but my favorites typically include okra and the “holy trinity” of bell peppers, onion, and celery. Recipes can vary, with ingredients and seasonings dictated by family traditions, personal taste, and skill level.
As we sampled each of the 10 entries, East Texans lined up outside each cooking station to get their own bowl. Awards were given out for the top gumbos, in addition to recognition for “showmanship” and a “People’s Choice” award.
This year’s winners were:
- First Place: Gary Spagnola
- Second Place: Scott Clower
- Showmanship: Whipple Family
- People’s Choice: Marvin Drennan
Born and raised south of Interstate 10, which in Louisiana is known as the state’s Mason-Dixon line, I’ve had my fair share of authentic gumbos in my lifetime. While I’m partial to any dish prepared by my family, I admit I’m quite impressed by the quality of the Cajun cuisine this far “north.”
If you’ve never attempted your own gumbo from scratch, know that it takes practice and patience. Not burning the roux can take trial and error, but when you master the technique, it can pay off for your taste buds.
Try these “approved” recipes to get you started:
Seafood Gumbo, by Louisiana Cookin Magazine
Cajun Seafood Gumbo with Andouille Smoked Sausage recipe, by Chef Paul Prudhomme
Justin Wilson’s Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo, from Food.com
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of KLTV/KTRE-TV or Raycom Media. They are solely the opinion of the author. All content © Copyright 2016 Lane Luckie