A great a panel of gumbo cookoff judges is like a pot of gumbo – diverse in ingredients and rich in flavor. Of course, I didn’t know this until I met the other judges in the 11th Annual Gulf Breeze Rotary Gumbo Cookoff on Saturday.
Radio and TV personalities, a restaurateur, a deli manager, an alligator wrestler aka cookoff competitor, and a former NFL player, along with moi, the lowly gumbo writer, formed a jury of nine tasters in the benefit event that raises more than $35,000 annually for high school scholarships.
I prepared my taste buds for the cookoff by first stopping at my granddaughter’s lemonade
stand for a palate-cleansing drink. When I checked in to the event at 10:30 a.m., I received a generous goodie bag complete with t-shirt, then unloaded my personal tasting spoons (I was serious about this) at the judging tent. Soon all nine of us were seated board-room style under the big tent. Before us on the table — clipboards, pens and manila folders with judging sheets, plastic spoons (I didn’t need my fancy ones after all) and beverages. Around us, hundreds of people mingled in the tree-lined festival area stopping at decorated booths and tents, listening to the sounds of a rock band, and tasting gumbo from 21 teams, whose cooks were already sweating in the Florida sun.
Back under our tent after introductions and the review of judging criteria, our Rotary hosts,
in a finely orchestrated manner, graciously served us gumbo samples in style, delivering promptly and scooping away empties quickly. We tasted from small plastic cups labeled by number. Blind judging – not blindfolded as I later joked – prevented us from determining which team made what gumbo. One hundred per cent blind, one-hundred percent fair.
From two categories – professional and amateur – we tasted 21 gumbos made of everything from frog legs and alligator, to seafood, chicken and sausage. We sampled shrimp and crab claws, oysters – (fortunately my judging neighbor the alligator wrestler from Chicago loved oysters and got mine). We scientifically scored samples 1-5 on aroma, consistency, color, taste and aftertaste. Sometimes we shared thoughts – “Does that taste salty?” “Did they burn the roux?” “Whoa, that’s got a kick!” But we all tallied secretly, some panel members even folding their score cards to pass them to the tabulators at the end of the table.
Savvy competitors tried to tilt the scales with sides of cornbread, potato salad or hush puppies, but we focused on gumbo. (The cornbread rocked).
And just when we thought we’d downed the last cup of gumbo, the tabulators realized we needed a taste off. I still don’t know if the taste off was for first or third place because even though I read the winners the next day, I still don’t know which team cooked which gumbo. So my favorite gumbo remains a secret because I honestly don’t know who cooked it.