Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off coming to Lake Charles in June

Published 11:00 am Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The 16th annual Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off will be hosted in Lake Charles for the first time since its inception in 2004. Lieutenant Billy Nungesser made the announcement Tuesday at the Chart House at Golden Nugget, saying it is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate Southwest Louisiana is back stronger than ever and to highlight its great chefs and restaurants.

This is one of four new gastronomic happenings in the works for Lake Charles. In conjunction with the drama that makes the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off such fun, over 20 local restaurants will offer their best in seafood and non-seafood dishes during a special tasting event, according to Kyle Edminston, president and CEO, Visit Lake Charles. Chuck Taste tickets will be $50. Proceeds will benefit Sowela Culinary and Hospitality School. Mark calendars for June 27.

One lucky sweepstakes winner and his guest will attend the Louisiana Cook-Off/Chuck Tastes for free as VIPs, tour a local brewery and enjoy a private lunch prepared by last year’s seafood cook-off winner and local chef, Amanda Cusey.

Samantha Carroll, executive director for the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Market Board announced the Heard Whatley (September 1914 – December 2005) were known as great cooks. They married brothers who died young, and the sisters opened Dunn’s Cafe in DeQuincy in the mid-1950s and early-1960s.

“Grandma Jenette went to work making pies in the back of the cafe for Aunt Bea, and bought the cafe sometime later,” Garrison said. “When the railroad men would get off work, they’d come in for a hamburger and when they finished it, they’d order a whole pie to take home.”

At night, Dunn’s Cafe was a hangout for high school kids.

“Grandma had a jukebox,” Garrison said. “But she wouldn’t let the kids dance in the restaurant, so they’d play a song inside and go outside to dance, jitterbug mostly.”

Whatley’s daughter Billie Jean Dunn LeBleu Brown – Mea (Me-uh) to her grandchildren – soon took over pie-making duties at the cafe. She wasn’t out of high school yet and remembers making as many as 40 pies at a time. Pies sold for $3 each or 50 cents a slice. After Brown married, she opened a daycare. Parents never had to worry about whether their children were well-fed and cared for.

“I remember her homemade pancakes were a big hit with her day care kids. Nobody makes pancakes like her.” (She separates the egg yolks and whites, beats the whites and folds them in.) “Of course everything was good, especially her roast, rice and gravy,” Garrison said.

Every holiday the family looked forward to Mea’s cornbread dressing, candied yams, gumbo and shrimp Creole.

Garrison’s Maw Maw Francis (Garrison) opened her own bakery in DeQuincy in the 1980s.

“When people realize I’m her granddaughter, they usually tell me they wish they could still get one of the solid chocolate eggs she made and decorated every Easter.”

Garrison’s mother, Mitzi LeBleu Wilkinson, valued her mother’s expertise. After she married and started cooking for her own family, she had to call her mother to find out how to make certain dishes. Wilkinson realized the importance of collecting those recipes jotted down on a scrap of paper, torn from a magazine or newspaper, found in one of many church cookbooks (maybe with tweaked or corrected handwritten notes) and oftentimes committed to memory long ago. Wilkinson’s aunt, Carol Heard, helped.

In 2012, Wilkinson dedicated the cookbook to Bea and Jennette Cooley who “loved cooking, spending time with family and serving others….Some of the recipes are treasured family favorites and some are new; however, all reflect the love of good cooking.”

That sentence could have probably ended with the word love. Few would doubt that these women demonstrated their love with food. Garrison does.

“It gives me so much happiness to feed my family and have them enjoy it,” she said. “It’s like my love language. Just like I connect certain memories to family and food, my kids are connecting special memories and moments with their mom and food.”

Check out Garrison’s food blog by going to www.sweettsrecipes.org or get the Pepper app and go to @tabethag.