Destin, Florida is famous for its high rise, luxurious condominiums overlooking the see-through waters of the Emerald Coast. But fifty years ago, Destin was simply a sleepy little fishing village with a big fishing pier.
Those days are preserved in Destin’s History & Fishing Museum, a small museum filled with local lore and fishing memorabilia. To help keep the museum going, the chefs from the posh restaurants roll up their sleeves and compete in the Destin Gumbo Contest. For three hours, they dish out all the gumbo you can sample in the community center across from the museum. Locals compete, too. This year their twenty individual entries (labeled A-S) flanked both sides of the gym. The home cooks ladle out samples of gumbo from crock pots, some of them splattered with former ingredients from church dinners and barbecues.
The sixteen restaurants displayed their creations across the front of the gym on tables decorated with Mardi Gras beads and colors. Many of the chefs were serving their own creations while hotel and restaurant staff members passed out coupons and menus.
For me, it was all about tasting. I had a plan to taste all 36 entries. By skipping the rice and limiting myself to two spoonfuls (at first) I tasted almost every entry. (Home cooks “G” and “J” were already out by the time I got to their crock pots.) No two gumbos tasted alike even though most used twists on the same ingredients. One had duck, most had chicken, some were seafood, almost all had sausage. A few had tomatoes and okra, and I think I tasted coriander in a couple. I sampled every entry and easily selected the letter “I”, a medium-colored chicken and sausage gumbo, as my individual favorite.
Selecting the best professional etnry was much more challenging. Plus, I was beginning to get my fill of gumbo. I narrowed it down to Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina Cafe, both seafood gumbos. After a second round and then a third round, I decided that the Marina Cafe (entry M #4) was best because of its unique buttery aftertaste.
I made one big mistake, though. I got so wrapped up in the tasting, the live music and the silent auction, that I forgot to turn in my vote. So, here’s a shout out for Home Cook “I” and Marina Cafe “M #4,” the best in the Destin Gumbo Contest.