LIVINGSTON -- What started as a backyard party between friends has grown into one of the parish’s most popular annual fundraisers.
And this year may have been the biggest yet.
A full course of mouthwatering gumbo, live music, dancing and children’s activities was served up to ticket buyers during Watson’s Ninth Annual Bird & Sausage Gumbo Cook-off on Saturday, Jan. 26.
The cook-off, aimed at raising money for local veterans programs, drew hundreds to the Livingston Parish Fairgrounds, where wisps of smoke from pots of freshly-brewed gumbo hung in the air for all to smell. The event featured 53 four-person teams, who arrived around 6 a.m. to begin preparations, all of which were done on site.
For $10 a ticket, people ate all the gumbo they could stomach, as well as a plethora of other savory dishes. Apart from the food, ticket buyers enjoyed a mobile video game unit, tours of the Red Barn Farm and a petting zoo. The cook-off also featured live music from local performers Psycho Jo, Chris LeBlanc, Ampersand and SunDanze Dunston.
All proceeds from the event will go toward two organizations, organizer Berlin Coxe said: Quad Vets, a homeless veterans facility in Hammond, and Mission 22, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness of suicide among veterans.
This was the first year the cook-off was held at the Livingston Parish Fairgrounds, but Coxe doesn’t envision it being the last.
“This is the biggest and best one yet,” said Coxe, who organizes the event with his wife, Bobbi Jo Guerin. “It was the easiest setup, great parking, no muddy walkways, just smooth as glass. This was the place to be. If we had to, we could put another 50 cooks in here. This is home right here.”
The cook-off has undergone many changes since Coxe and Guerin started it as a small neighborhood celebration nine years ago.
It was held at Guerin’s home the first two years, but a crowd of more than 500 the second year forced the couple to find a bigger venue for their “little get-together.” The event moved to Double D’s Daiquiris for the next five years before being relocated to the Live Oak Sports Complex last year.
This year, Coxe and Guerin made the decision to move it to the fairgrounds, which provided all the necessary ingredients to put on a large-scale event.
“It’s a lot better here,” Coxe said. “We hated moving it out of Watson, but there’s only so many places you can have this because it’s grown so much.”
Britt Richard, who has attended the cook-off every year it’s been held, still remembers gathering in Guerin’s backyard for the first one nine years ago. Like the organizers, he never imagined how big it would get.
“It was just 10 of us cooking in the backyard back then,” Richard said as he poured a serving of chicken and sausage gumbo prepared by his cooking team, Crew Da Cooyon. “Now look at it.”
As the cook-off has grown in popularity, so, too, has its purpose and reach.
The couple turned the event into a fundraiser in its second year, donating about $3,000 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Wounded Warrior Project, Coxe said. The next two years, about $16,000 was raised for the Raven Outreach Center, a non-profit organization in Baton Rouge that provides housing for homeless veterans.
Since then, proceeds have gone toward Quad Vets Transitional Housing Program, which helps veterans rehabilitate their lives by offering housing, meals, employment assistance, transportation, education, life skills and financial training, among other programs. The cook-off has raised roughly $30,000 for Quad Vets, Coxe said.
This year, Coxe and Guerin added to the mix Mission 22, a national organization named after the alarming suicide rate among veterans. According to Mission 22’s website, more than 20 veterans take their own lives every day.
Sean Davis, the Louisiana state leader for Mission 22, told cook-off attendees he was one of those veterans who suffered from suicidal thoughts. After serving in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, Davis said he “turned to the bottle” for 10 years and had “numerous” failed suicide attempts.
“Then I kept remembering what my troop commander told me: ‘If you’re not 100 percent trying to fix the problem, you’re part of the problem,’” Davis recalled. “I saw the devastation I caused my family and friends. I’ve spent my life working with veterans since.”
Davis thanked those present for their contributions to the organization, which provides a one-year therapy program that is specifically tailored to each veteran.
Though gumbo is what started the cook-out, Coxe said it is no longer the reason for it.
“I tell these cooks every year that their gumbo is important, but it ain’t really about the food,” Coxe said. “It’s about raising money for these veterans.
“It take us to help these men and women,” Coxe said later. “These people fought our fight. They stared down the gun for us. We shouldn’t turn our backs on them, we should support them. They deserve whatever we can do for them. They’ve earned it.”
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