By the Way

‘I can make a better gumbo than you,’ or so says everyone who lives on the Coast

Sun Herald staff writer Jeff Clark samples gumbo at the Sun Herald Gumbo Championship on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017.
Sun Herald staff writer Jeff Clark samples gumbo at the Sun Herald Gumbo Championship on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. Courtesy Jeff Clark

The weather for the 36th annual Biloxi Seafood Festival on Sunday was almost perfect.

It was sunny and warm with a nice breeze, courtesy of then-Hurricane Irma. The Seafood Festival was popping this year as thousands made their way to the Biloxi Town Green to purchase various types of seafood and to sample gumbo and vote for their favorite batch.

Corey Christy and Blackwater Brass provided the live soundtrack. If you haven’t seen Blackwater Brass lately, there’s a reason they are becoming one of the top festivals acts in the South — they are good, like really, really good. You can check out their food-themed EP “From The Cupboard” on Spotify, which includes the live-show staple “Strawberry.”

But as much as I enjoyed the “Brass” and the weather, I was there on a serious mission and that was to help judge the gumbo competition. The judges this year for the Sun Herald Gumbo Championship were me, representing the Sun Herald, a chef from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and King Richard Johnson, the Shrimp King and a seventh generation fisherman.

We were seated at a judge’s table behind the stage and festival visitors were quick to stop by and chat. I assumed it was because of my dope Cheap Trick trucker hat, but it in hindsight it was probably because King Richard was wearing a crown. And for every person who dropped by to visit, some of the first words from their lips were, “You should try my gumbo.” Of course, I wanted to tell everyone, “Don’t sing it, bring it,” and that they should have entered the contest, but self control is a good thing, especially as one gets older.

Gumbo on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is serious business. I know what I like in a gumbo, but I leave the gumbo cooking, for the most part, to the pros. I’m from North Mississippi. If this had been a contest on how to make the best moonshine or Brunswick stew (pro tip: remove the squirrel heads before serving), I would have passionately opined.

“The best seasoning for gumbo is hogs head cheese,” said the Shrimp King. It was like the record player stopped in real life. Say what?

And then came the onslaught of tips from the festival guests: “I put crabs in mine,” “I season mine with crab boil,” “I use okra at the end,” “I use shrimp shells” and on and on. In life, most people think they can build a better fire and cook a better steak than their neighbor. On the Coast, prideful gumbo cooking also falls into this category.

So how was the gumbo?

Well, some of the gumbo was really good and some of it was not. There’s nothing like taking a big spoonful of that acrid tasting burned gumbo. Delicious.

And y’all, seriously, why in the name of all that is holy would you garnish your gumbo with potato salad? Why? Why would you do this?

The best gumbo I tried was what I call “that casino gumbo” — the gumbo that is cooked perfectly with the big chunks of lump crab and lots of shrimp. I sampled several gumbos that met this criteria.

After the judging was over, or as Kenny Rogers would say, “When the dealing’s done,” I was sitting at the table by myself when one more person stopped by to make small talk.

“I should have entered this contest, I bet I can make a better gumbo than you,” he said.

Hold my beer. OK, so I don’t drink. Hold my Coke Zero while I go find that jar of bacon grease I’ve been saving for years and get the cast iron skillet hot. It’s on, son.