Jambalaya flavors Swamp Pop

Jambalaya isn’t just a meal in Ascension Parish, it’s part of the community’s culture and history.

The rice concoction is cooked for large family gatherings, at church picnics and to raise money for countless charities.

Gonzales is the Jambalaya Capital of the World and celebrates the dish with its own festival each May.

It’s also part of a competitive cooking ritual that was played out once again Saturday at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center as cooks lined up to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Jambalaya Festival Association President Wally Taillon said the CF Swamp Pop Festival’s cook-off drew 99 cooks, making it almost as big as the association’s better known annual festival.

Taillon said his association started hosting the cook-off about 10 years ago as part of its mission to support the community.

This year’s turnout was a record for the cook-off, which was held Friday and Saturday at the same time popular Swamp Pop bands performed inside the center’s Trademart building.

Cooks said they sign up every year for the Swamp Pop cook-off because there are fewer rules, it’s for a good cause and it’s another chance to compete.

Rules allowing younger competitors also mean that parents can cook alongside their children.

Joey Cornett cooked alongside two of his daughters, while Jay Alexis competed against his daughter.

All five made it to the finals and Cornett won the title.

Taillon said the Cornett sisters and Blair Alexis are all veterans of the JFA’s annual mini-pot contest.

“Once you figure out how to win in the mini-pot, you are ready for the big pots,” Taillon said.

Cornett said he was thrilled when he and his daughters all made it to the finals.

“I was just hoping one of us would make it, but to have all three is crazy,” Cornett said.

Jayla Cornett, 19, won third place and Blair Alexis, 15, was second.

“We’ve got some great young cooks, and this is a great example that they’re ready for the big festival,” Taillon said.

Cornett’s other daughter, Jenna, 15, was former Miss Gonzales Jambalaya queen Meredith Conger’s cooking partner.

Conger said she’s picked up cooking tips from several cooks.

“We’re all one big cooking family,” Conger said.

Conger also served as Miss Swamp Pop queen in 2010.

Joey Cornett said he enjoys helping younger cooks.

“They’re eager to learn and they listen,” he said.

Joey Cornett said he was mentored by former champs Jody Elisar, “Tee” Wayne Abshire and Carlos Braud.

Braud also made it to the finals, but was cooking without his longtime helper Luke Gautreaux, who had a medical problem Friday and had to skip Saturday’s final round.

The Swamp Pop Festival is the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s largest fundraiser in the country, organizers said.