I was honored this past weekend to be invited to help judge the 18th annual Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo Cook Off ahead of Manitou Springs' Carnivale celebration.
Before I get into my impressions, the winners and more, view this brief slideshow of the event.
Thanks to Rachel Wonciar from the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, we know that around 500 people attended the event and purchased more than 5,000 tasting tickets at 50 cents per ticket, raising around $2,500.
A quick digression on that money: Wonciar explains that "After paying fees for renting the park, renting tables from AAA Rentals, renting port-a-potties from Bestway, paying each of the amateur gumbo teams a $50 stipend to compensate for food costs, and purchasing trophies, prizes, tasting cups, spoons, napkins,etc … The Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce keeps whatever proceeds are left to put into our other Community Events."
With the exception of four chamber staff members, the event is totally pulled off by volunteer support.
Five professional and eight amateur teams competed this year, and my co-judges were chef Tyler Peoples of the Briarhurst Manor Estate and Manitou volunteer and veteran judge Kevin Fleischman.
Our tasting was totally blind, so amateurs Cindy and Steve Maniscalco should feel particularly good about winning both the People's Choice Award from crowd votes as well as the judges' vote for first place in the amateur division. They were followed by the Kiwanis Club of Manitou Springs and Rick Jolley.
Here's a look at what my score sheet looked like:
I'll say first that I politely suggest that the Chamber change the "color" category to "aroma," or "smell" or "nose," or whatever conveys the scent. Because each of us judges were first smelling the gumbos before tasting them, and discovering both good and bad elements of the Cajun off-gassing.
Color, without a guideline for what the ideal color should be, is a fairly useless category, so I gave everyone the same score on that one. I found nothing wrong with the dark or light roux; if anything, it's about preferred style and intent of the culinary team.
Also, we struggled between 1 and 5, agreeing between us that we'd love more room for play with a scale running 1 through 10. After sampling 14 gumbos back-to-back, you'd probably begin to understand why I say that.
The fun part for me was realizing just how different gumbo interpretations can be. Truly, no two dishes tasted alike. Some were heavily shrimp-flavored, others almost fully reliant on sausage. Some were too salty or overly spiced, and some too subtle and needing a few more pinches of personality. A couple were too loose and soupy.
Ultimately, we struggled to determine who executed the best balance between all the flavors, while also hitting texture and presentation. It wasn't easy — we requested a couple of re-tastings — and in the end, we didn't know who we rewarded until after the event.
I had a great time serving in this capacity (and not having to brave the big line to get in), and several guests with whom I spoke casually were clearly excited by playing judge as well for the People's Choice Award.
Next year, before you restrain all of your primitive urges at Carnivale, set aside time to get gumbo'd first.