The World Championship Gumbo Cookoff is the Most Heated Competition in Louisiana
Simmering stock, stirring roux, gathering crowds—scenes from New Iberia's heated cooking competition.
The World Championship Gumbo Cookoff draws a varied mix of folks to New Iberia, Louisiana's Main Street—including teams of pros and home cooks, zydeco performers, dancers, enthusiastic eaters from near and far, and kids learning how to make this region's beloved dish by competing in the Youth Gumbo Cookoff.
At 5 a.m. on a warm October morning in South Louisiana, the sun had yet to lift over the Bayou Teche, but Kevin Sonnier and his teammates were ready to make a few hundred quarts of gumbo in the dark. They hauled in bags of Gold Medal flour, jugs of vegetable oil, and packages of sausage and chicken. They strapped headlamps across their foreheads and allowed the "roux police" to poke through their coolers with flashlights looking for contraband (premade roux). At 6 a.m., a shotgun fired, and the World Championship Gumbo Cookoff in New Iberia, Louisiana, officially began.
"We in cook mode now," Sonnier said, a boudin kolacky from Meche's Donuts in New Iberia in one hand and his spoon in another. Steam rose over cauldrons that dotted the downtown park, while the scrapes of whisks and spoons against gumbo pots skittered across the silence.
The festival began 30 years ago as a fund-raiser to pay off the mortgage of the Greater Iberia Chamber of Commerce. (In all those years, they've missed only one festival due to a hurricane.) Twelve booths offered gumbo in 1988, but since then, the count has bloomed to more than 80. Cooks can enter as amateurs or professionals, with the pros competing in seafood or non-seafood categories, while the amateurs can choose seafood (anything from the water), chicken and sausage, and mélange (meaning mixture). The latter is the wild card of gumbo with an anything-goes ingredient list that could include meats from duck to gator. But no matter the category, it's a party—and it's competitive.
A few tents down from Sonnier, another cook stirred his roux while a friend pointed a laser thermometer into the mixture, which was deepening to the color of peanut butter. "I don't eat gumbo at a restaurant," said teammate Jamie Gaither, who worked over another pot nearby. "I learned from my mama in the kitchen."
WATCH: This Gumbo Has Taken First Place 11 Times at the World Championship Gumbo Cookoff
Gaither flies helicopters into the Gulf of Mexico oil fields by day. By night—for the past three nights, anyway—he has readied his stock with 10 pounds of leg quarters, a hen, and seasonings. "Everybody's got a different idea, and nobody's wrong," he said, spooning roux into stock. "It just depends on your taste. Of course, ours is gonna be a little bit better."
Working outdoors in big batches also means that cooking mishaps can happen. At yet another booth, Nelson Boutte, the hospitality chef for the McIlhenny Company (the maker of Tabasco), burned his first batch of roux. "I'll be worn out for sure," he said, vigorously stirring a second batch.
By 11 a.m., the park swarmed with locals sampling the deep, earthy flavors of gumbos in various shades as Cajun bands had two-steppers twirling under a pavilion.
A few hours before the trophy ceremony, the finalist teams received signs to hang on their booths. A sign means bragging rights and signals to patrons where they might want to snag a sample. Boutte and the Tabasco team earned a sign despite their rocky start. But Gaither and his team didn't get one, even after many wins in the past. "That's part of it," said team leader Sandy Derise with a smile and a shrug.
Back at Sonnier's tent, teammate Aaron Guilbeau showed off his lucky hot sauce bottle. He likes to keep it in his pocket while cooking, because he found it there after his first win seven years ago. He displays this bottle with the team's winning trophies from years past and then puts it back in his pocket before each cook-off. This year, it helped make some of the most popular gumbo at the festival, but it didn't bring the winning mojo.
"It was almost a perfect weekend," Sonnier added. "LSU won. The Astros won. The Saints won. But we don't have a finalist sign. Maybe next year."
Cajun vs. Creole
One can expect a fair amount of smack talk between teams at a gumbo competition. But Tookey Hebert, a former sugar-cane farmer and festivalgoer from New Iberia, had a few fighting words from the whole region. "You're not gonna get a better gumbo than Acadiana," he said. "New Orleans doesn't have good food like here. It's for drinking and cutting up."
Hebert was just delivering playful jabs, of course, though the differences between Cajun country cooking and Creole city dishes shouldn't be underestimated. Gumbo cook-off chefs often cited a lack of tomato in Cajun gumbos as compared to New Orleans-style gumbos.
According to Sara Roahen's excellent book Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008), Creole gumbos are also thicker and lighter in color than the Cajun variety. Like many matters of the heart (and belly) in a place with as rich a history and collection of cultures as Louisiana, the definitions can be as murky as the dish.