Little pots score big taste in competition

They’re small, miniatures of their big brothers, the huge black-iron pots used to cook heaps of jambalaya throughout South Louisiana. The Mini Jambalaya Contests are popular events at the annual Jambalaya Festival in Gonzales.

Saturday morning on the lawn of the Knights of Columbus Council 2657 on Irma Boulevard, under shading branches of large oak trees, men, women and children competed to win the mini-pot titles in their various age and gender categories.

“I just enjoy being outside cooking. I sometimes cook big (jambalayas) for the family but I enjoy the small ones,” said 12-year-old Brayden Carter, of Gonzales, a three-year veteran of the contest, as he focused on the tiny cast-iron pot he set up on the retaining wall alongside Bayou Francois.

Using small chunks of wood, he kept a steady flame under the pot while smaller chunks of pork and sausage browned in the pot. Later, bell pepper, onion, celery, seasonings and rice would be added.

Unlike in the “big pot” jambalaya contest, mini-pot contestants furnish their own ingredients, added in amounts of their own discretion.

The mini-pots yield about a quart of jambalaya; the ingredients comprise about a cup each of cubed pork, sausage and rice, with mere spoonfuls of aromatics for flavor. Judges, who taste only the rice, look for a few key elements: the color of the rice, its texture and how well it is permeated with the flavor of the meats.

Berkley Parent, 16 and the 2014 Teen Miss Gonzales Jambalaya, worked on her mini-pot with the help of her dad, 2007 World Champion Jambalaya Cook Jeff Parent. He didn’t get too much into her business but also didn’t shy away from offering fatherly jambalaya-cooking advice.

“I am the first daughter of a (jambalaya) champ who’s a (jambalaya) queen,” said Berkley. “So we’ve made, like, history.”

Mini-pot jambalaya, indeed, has become a tradition in some families, even outside of the annual Gonzales competition, as Joey Cornett pointed out while he helped his son, 8-year-old Joel Cornett with his mini-pot: “We have a family mini-pot cook-off at Christmas and during Labor Day campouts.” The younger Cornett has not placed in three festival tries but his dad won the adult division last year and in 2011.

“It’s a family affair,” said Jayla Cornett, sister of Joel and daughter of Joey, as she cooked her mini-pot in the adult women’s division. “I’ve been cooking (in the contest) three years but been taking this seriously since I was 15.” She said her 16-year-old sister Jenna would have competed in the junior division but instead sang in a band performing at the festival.

Friday evening featured the Champ of Champs mini-pot contest, which was won by Lyell Turner, who won her division Saturday in the mini-pot contest.

A total of 32 men and 14 women competed Saturday in their respective divisions, while 27 youth cooks (children 12 and under; juniors, 13-17) vied for first, second or third places in those divisions. Winners received plaques and pins for their effort.

The event is a fundraiser for Dream Day Foundation and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Carson Duplessis won the children’s division with Matthew Abshire taking the win in the junior division. Greg Gaudin captured the mini-pot men’s title.