Although I am a native of Louisiana, I am a Yankee from Shreveport. When I moved to South Louisiana, someone told me that Shreveport was almost Louisiana. And I freely admit that Shreveport is the capital of East Texas. North Louisiana really is culturally and geographically more like East Texas and South Arkansas. If you want to talk about Cajun and Creole culture and swamp land, you have to go South – and some say you have to go South of Interstate 10 (and by that standard, I’m still a Yankee by 1.2 miles).
But, since becoming embedded in the southern Louisiana life, and more particularly the culture around Gonzales, I have become obsessed with making a good jambalaya. All cities worth their salt around here have some festival dedicated to a local food or legend (mostly food). And each one lays claim to being the world capital of said food. It’s really no different than anywhere else. I mean no one honestly believes that the Magnolia Blossom Festival is the home of World Champion Ribeye Steaks…or is it? Whatever you believe, those are some of the best steaks you will ever eat. And they have become a qualifying event for the World Food Championships with Adam Richman. So, maybe they are the world capital.
Likewise, Gonzales, LA is the self-proclaimed Jambalaya Capital of the World. Living in such a place one gets exposed to a lot of different jambalaya recipes. And one begins to lean toward a favorite. During our time here I have had the opportunity to work in a few concession stands at football games. As you might imagine, in a place like Gonzales, jambalaya is a concession stand staple. Any stadium worth going to on a Friday night in the Fall is selling jambalaya made by a volunteer parent or grandparent. And the Dutchtown High School stadium is a fine example, with Mr. Mike making one of the best jambalayas around. It’s so good, even my Yankee kids get excited to know they’ll get a bowl. People have come to the concession stand and asked if Mr. Mike made the jambalaya this weekend. And if he didn’t, they order a hamburger.
And so when I asked for a 10-gallon jambalaya pot for Christmas, I also asked Mr. Mike if he’d give out his recipe (which is kind of like asking for the keys to Fort Knox). But he was happy to share. Turns out that his recipe is a very simple, very rustic kind of thing and that’s what I like. If you enter the Gonzales championship cook-off there is a very limited list of ingredients you are allowed to use. I think they are trying to determine only two things: can you cook rice, and can you make it brown and yummy looking without using artificial coloring (like Kitchen Bouquet). To that end, most competitions around here do not allow artificial coloring or parboiled rice. Using those two things is considered cheating.
I have learned that there are a thousand ways to make jambalaya, and that like everyone else, I think I’ve got the best recipe. I have a simple, old-school recipe that is a descendant of recipes used by past champions, and I am a traditionalist. I can accept that there are lots of ways to make jambalaya and people have different tastes. Some people like to put in Pickapeppa sauce, and Tiger Sauce, and Worcestershire sauce, and on and on. I got a recipe from one guy that had 20 different seasoning ingredients and a couple of different cream soups. You can find a LOT of different stove-top recipes on the internet, and most of them look pretty good. I’m not so sure about this quinoa version with turkey sausage, but just about anything else looks pretty tasty. But I still prefer a traditional, simple recipe with salt, pepper, garlic and hot sauce. And no seafood (save that for the boiling pot).
You might not have many jambalaya competitions where you live, but around here that’s how people raise money. Little League baseball teams stand out front of Lowe’s hawking jambalaya lunches, families of kids with medical problems have benefit fundraisers with jambalaya lunches. The Kiwanis Club in your town is probably selling BBQ chicken dinners to raise money. In this area, it’s jambalaya. And usually from a gigantic pot – lots of fundraisers and competition cooks are using 30 or 40 gallon cast iron pots to cook in. Mr. Mike told me he has a pot that will hold 110 pounds of rice (enough to feed 600 or 700 people). The amount of jambalaya you cook is measured by how much rice you are using – a 10 pound jambalaya means you are using 10 pounds of rice. It also means at least 10 pounds of everything else – 10 pounds of sausage, 10 pounds of chicken (or pork), and 10 pounds of onions. If you are cooking for a fundraiser, keep it simple and straightforward to keep the costs down (we’re trying to raise money, here). If it’s for family, add more sausage and meat.
And so with my simple recipe and my 10 gallon cast iron cooking pot, I have found a few local fundraiser competitions to enter football booster club, United Way, Race for the Cure). I’ve also cooked a little for the college church group, and a fundraiser for the Winterguard team. When I entered my first competition, I was told I could not win because I did not have the right last name (look at the list of winners in Gonzales – Ulton Diez, Edward Braud, Fatty Lessard, Tibby Lambert, Tee Wayne Abshire, Norbert Loupe – I’m not Cajun enough to win). But I have had a few people tell me they like my recipe. I wasn’t real sure if they were being sincere or just neighborly. Not until a few weeks ago
Me and Randy Fuson got together and entered the Komen Race for the Cure Jambalaya Cook-Off in Baton Rouge to help raise a little money for breast cancer research (BIG thanks to Dräger for sponsoring us). As we passed out samples for tasting, some of the people told us they liked ours better than the other competitors. Nice. Thanks for that. (Really? Are y’all just being nice? Are you telling everybody that?). But then, a group of about five or six ladies came back to our table and asked if I had a card. They wanted my number so they could hire me to cook for their event. SCORE. YES, it really is good. Maybe not the best, but “the best” really is hard to define. It depends on how much pepper you like, and if you like the brand of sausage we used, and if you like a lot of complex flavors or something simple and rustic.
I’m not looking to start a catering business, but if you need to feed 100 people (or 50 or 20) and you want a good, simple, rustic jambalaya, let me know. I can hook you up. And if you need to feed more than that, I know a guy.