Cornbread Kismet – The Dawn of a Food Sport Competitor
I have competed off and on in cooking/recipe contests for the past 25 years. But my first ‘live’ cook-off was in May 2017 as a contender at The National Cornbread Cook-Off finals in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. . Sitting at the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau of the Appalachian Mountains, South Pittsburg is home to the Lodge Manufacturing Company, which opened its first cast iron foundry in 1896. An incredible history! Lodge, and its cookware, was one of the corporate sponsors of the cook-off, along with Martha White, FiveStar Range, and Cracker Barrel. As a side note: Cracker Barrel, it turns out, is a popular restaurant for the locals to get their catfish and country fried steak. I know, because I asked the “taxi” driver (there are no Ubers in South Pittsburg and—and there are no taxis either, actually) what the best restaurant in the area was and she said, “Well, that would have to be Cracker Barrel.” So there you have it.
The Cornbread Cook-Off, too, is an important local event, a tradition that began in 1996 as part of the Cornbread Festival. So, flanked by two of my best girlfriends, we hauled our pots, pans, utensils, and all of recipe ingredients to the backwoods of rural Tennessee. We didn’t know what to expect, but we were excited to kick back by the pool at the hotel to soak up the southern sun and strategize for the two days leading up to the contest. The pool, however, was covered in a tarp, so our “team meetings” were held on the concrete patio abutting the parking lot. Not quite what we pictured as we set off on our first Tennessee adventure, but it was here, surrounded by cars and cigarette butts, that we met some of the other cook-off competitors who prepared us for what was about to happen.
The day of the cook-off was intense. It was a sweltering 102 degrees and closer to 110 under the competition tent with five gas ranges running at full steam. The ranges weren’t the only thing on fire, as my nerves were also ‘in da house’ but not on display, I’m happy to say, as the emcee interviewed us live on Facebook and an audience of about 100 people watched as we worked our stations on the stage.
We had one hour to cook the dish we qualified with, mine being Cornbread Crusted Catfish Jambalaya. To become a finalist, you had to create a recipe using Martha White Cornbread Mix and wouldn’t be a bad idea to use a Lodge Cast Iron skillet!. It was Lodge that chose ten out of several hundred recipes as the finalists who would compete at the festival, and I was grateful for the opportunity to be in that elite group!
After one intense hour and a few mishaps… my dish was completed, plated and ready for tasting (see the finished dish below). We received rave reviews from a couple of the judges afterward, but the in the end did not take home the big prize. What we did take home was an amazing experience and a newfound addiction to food sport. More importantly, some of those other contestants—like Mary Edwards and Robin Kessler—have become great advocates and friends. I learned about a whole cooking community that I never knew existed and I also learned about the World Food Championship in Orange Beach, Alabama, which would be my next foray into live cooking and food sport—my new addiction.