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Jambalaya cook-off kicks off United Way campaign

Connie Thomas, right, and Lola Knight celebrate the Council on Aging win during the United Way Jambalaya Cook-Off (Ben Hillyer /The Natchez Democrat)
Connie Thomas, right, and Lola Knight celebrate the Council on Aging win during the United Way Jambalaya Cook-Off (Ben Hillyer /The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Shrimp, sausage and love were the only special ingredients the Council on Aging needed Thursday to win the United Way jambalaya cook-off fundraiser.

The group took home first place in the annual jambalaya fundraiser competition.

Dressed as the Godfather of Soul, A.J. Hardin from the Council on Aging performs his best James Brown moves during the United Way jambalaya cook-off.
Dressed as the Godfather of Soul, A.J. Hardin from the Council on Aging performs his best James Brown moves during the United Way jambalaya cook-off.

Coincidentally, the Council on Aging just happens to be one of the organizations the United Way helps.

“We know how much the United Way does for this community because we’re one of those groups they support,” said Connie Thomas, the event chairperson for the council. “That’s why we came back out to cook and be a part of this great event.”

After winning the 2011 event and participating in the 2012 event, the group sat last year’s event out.

Ready to get back in the game, Thomas said the group members put everything they had into the event this year to make sure they made the right comeback.

“We felt so good about coming back that we knew we could do something great again this year,” Thomas said. “Love is the only secret ingredient we used.”

The event’s theme was “Get On Up” in honor of the James Brown biographical movie filmed by Mississippian Tate Taylor and shot in and around the Natchez area.

Apart from a stellar pot of jambalaya, the Council on Aging also convinced member A.J. Hardin to dress up as the Godfather of Soul.

Hardin danced along to live music played by other members of the group at their booth and even attempted to do the splits in the true spirit of the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”

“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” said the 64-year-old Natchez resident. “I already know I’m going to be aching after this, but it’s all for a good cause.”

The jambalaya cook-off is a kickoff to the 2014 United Way Community Investment Pledge Drive, a three-month fundraising campaign. This year’s total goal is $150,000 — with most of that coming from company-run campaigns.

Lynn Leckie hands a sample of jambalaya from the Callon Petroleum team.(Ben Hillyer /The Natchez Democrat)
Lynn Leckie hands a sample of jambalaya from the Callon Petroleum team.(Ben Hillyer /The Natchez Democrat)

United Way business director Tammy Prince said she was thrilled with the turnout Thursday at the Natchez Convention Center.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better crowd,” Prince said. “It’s so great to see all these teams come together and be a part of this.”

One of the 17 teams competing this year was Magnolia Bluffs Casino, which came in second in the jambalaya competition. It was also the group’s first time competing at the cook-off.

Joey DeFazio, who cooked the jambalaya along with Dale Wimley and Patricia Matthews, said he believed it was the group’s fresh ingredients that helped them get so far in the competition.

“We used all fresh vegetables, and I think you could really taste how crisp and fresh they were in the jambalaya,” DeFazio said. “We paired that with (Matthews’) famous bread pudding, and it was a hit.”

Groups of guest judges judged the jambalaya platters on overall appearance, texture of rice and overall taste.

In the jambalaya competition, the Council on Aging placed first, Magnolia Bluffs placed second and Silas Simmons placed third.

Natchez Community Hospital won the award for best decorated team booth. The team’s booth was decorated using a large boom box style radio prop and each team member had a T-shirt that said, “The Godfather of Jambalaya.”

The United Way of the Greater Miss-Lou supports 13 local agencies. The goal of the United Way is to provide a central agency that individuals and businesses can support which then provides funding for a variety of nonprofits.

Prince said money raised at the jambalaya cook-off fundraiser would be counted Tuesday.