For many in Ascension Parish, cooking jambalaya is a family tradition.
Recipes and cooking pots are passed down from generation to generation, and the dish is served at everything from weddings to charity fundraisers.
But for four days in May each year, cooking the rice concoction is a sport, one that takes determination, fitness, skills and a little luck.
Men have waited years to win the title World Champion, and no woman has ever lifted the title trophy.
The serious task of selecting a world champion jambalaya cook starts at 10 a.m. Friday when the first heat of the Jambalaya Festival cooking contest starts in Gonzales.
Jambalaya Festival Association President Wally Taillon and a group of volunteers started work Monday morning erecting the cooking stations needed for the event, which is held along Irma Boulevard in the Jambalaya Capital of the World.
Taillon said 106 cooks have registered for the contest.
Cooks will use 30 pounds of chicken and 10 pounds of rice in the first round of competition and 45 pounds of meat and 15 pounds of rice in the second or semifinal rounds.
On Sunday, in the final heat, cooks will have to deal with 60 pounds of chicken and 20 pounds of rice.
Large black cast-iron pots are used to prepare the entries and all entries are cooked over wood-burning fires.
JFA volunteers will hand out the ingredients and seasonings needed for the event. It’s against the rules to add anything other than yellow or green onions, red hot sauce, celery, black pepper, garlic, red pepper, bell peppers, salt and cooking oil.
Cooks and their helpers will pull their wood for their fires from large piles stacked near the cooking stations.
There are two pages of rules and a team of field judges watches the cooks throughout each round of competition.
Hot temperatures and high humidity are expected.
Why do cooks fight so hard to win the title?
“It’s like competing in the Super Bowl or in a national championship,” Taillon said. “You don’t give up.”
Reigning champ Danny Robert competed for 21 years before he won the title.
“It’s in your blood,” Taillon said.
Taillon said the cooks share a certain camaraderie and brotherhood and “don’t mind helping each other out.”
That camaraderie will be on display for the public to view when cooks test their skills Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The top 32 high scorers from eight rounds of cooking Friday and Saturday will move on to two semifinal rounds Sunday, and the top 12 cooks will cook again Sunday afternoon for the title.
A new “weather rule” has been instituted this year, despite some reservations by Taillon.
He said members of the JFA board decided that heats that see “a hard, hard rain” will send the top four high scores to the final rounds.
He said hard rains sometime flood the cooking stations and those “cooking in low spots have trouble controlling their fires.”
“It’ll be left up to the field judges,” Taillon said.
The festival kicks off at 1 p.m. Thursday when former champions vie for the Champ of Champs title.
The festival also features carnival rides, traditional fair food, a run and a car show.
Young cooks and those who prefer to cook in smaller vessels will compete Saturday in the mini-pot contest.
“It’s a fun family weekend and a great way to celebrate the Memorial Day weekend,” Taillon said.
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