In the shadow of the El Governor Motel in Mexico Beach, something was stirring on Saturday.
As it turned out, that stirring was the stomachs of hungry residents, visitors and tourists waiting to dig in at the 16th annual Gumbo Cook-off.
It was my first year attending the event and I arrived early to Sunset Park. To my surprise, the line to get tickets rivaled some of Hollywood’s hottest nightclubs. Luckily for those who were queued, drinks were already being served and “the waiting game” quickly turned into the “how’s it going” game as people jovially made new friends in line or reconnected with old ones.
The normal aroma at Sunset Park of salt air wafting off the Gulf gave way to the smell of simmering sausage, chicken and seafood. I have to assume, and hope, that Heaven smells the same way.
When the ticket window opened a flood of hungry people began to purchase tickets by the fistful, grabbing and stuffing them into their pockets. I haven’t seen such fervor for something since Hostess announced that they were discontinuing production of the Twinkie in 2012.
As the ticket line dwindled down, patrons re-queued inside tents where 30 teams had set up Mardi Gras-themed stations. Chefs welcomed the crowd and swiftly served up various size cups ranging from a small taste to healthy, lunch-size portions.
While waiting for the event to begin, there was much speculation as to who would take home first place in the competition. According to one rumor that circulated the crowd, someone’s brother’s sister’s uncle who was first cousins with one of the judges said that the Thirsty Goat’s gumbo was a major contender.
I made a mental note to make the Thirsty Goat my first stop but by the time I arrived at their station, I realized that everyone else had done the same.
Matt Fitzgerald’s face was covered in a combination of pride, excitement and fear as his eyes scanned the crowd that clamored for his gumbo. Fitzgerald, the chef at the Port Inn, had made a few changes to his regular recipe adding crabmeat and bay scallops.
It was the Thirsty Goat’s fourth year in the competition and the team had placed every year to date, taking home the gold in 2011 and coming in second each subsequent year.
“The cook-off is so much fun,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s an awesome event and it helps out the community.”
A few stations down, I spied team Gumbo Gu-Roux from Charleston, South Carolina also involved in what could only be described as a “serving frenzy.”
The team, led by Mike Carroll, was competing for its third year and doled up a traditional recipe that the chef had learned while at culinary school in New Orleans.
“The atmosphere here is amazing,” said Carroll’s wife, Donna. “Everyone is always in such a good mood.”
Representing St. Joe Beach, resident Tom Kensky was competing for his fourth year. His approach was “be different.”
Kensky was serving up a chicken and Andouille sausage gumbo with black eyed peas and red beans but his secret weapon was crawfish étouffée consisting of rice and meat completely drowned in roux. Kensky reported that the dish had nearly been depleted only an hour into the day.
“This is so much fun to do, and it supports the community,” said Kensky.
As the day went on, the crowd started to slow as its gumbo meter went from empty to full.
I used the lull as an opportunity to check in with Team Mo Betta, the mother/daughter team of Carol Beasley and Audrey Switalski. The pair had traveled more than three hours from Steinhatchee in Taylor County after Switalskli discovered the event online just a few weeks prior. They quickly registered and booked a room at the El Governor, excited to compete with their family recipe.
“It’s a passed-down recipe,” said Switalski. “My family loves it and brags about it.
“We hope that we win and that we can come back next year.”
As gumbo pots reached empty, the winners were announced.
In the category of best restaurant gumbo: 1st place - The Fish House restaurant, 2nd place - The Thirsty Goat and 3rd place - Mango Marley’s.
In the category of best amateur gumbo: 1st place - Sowega Coonasses, 2nd place - Mo Betta and 3rd place - Roux Health Check, Inc.
For best Brunswick stew: 1st place – Camp Creek Cookers, 2nd place – Biker Brew Crew, 3rd place – El Go Gumbo.
The award for best team spirit wen to El Go Gumbo, the prize for best decorated went to The Camp Creek Cookers and the award for furthest traveled was bestow on Gumbo Gu-Roux.
“We are overwhelmed by the turnout and appreciative of everyone who battled the traffic to come out,” said Kimberly Shoaf, president of the Mexico Beach Community Development Council. “It’s the largest crowd we’ve ever had to date.
“We’re grateful to all who entered the event and we’ve managed to sell out of gumbo every year.”
The Gumbo Cook-off is a fundraiser for Mexico Beach’s annual Best Blast on the Beach Fourth of July fireworks display and based on the sheer amount of attendees and the number of tickets I watched change hands, one thing is for sure: we’re all in for an amazing fireworks show.