A short walk from the Ferris wheel, Scrambler and Big Bear rides at the St. Stephen Spring Jubilee Saturday, spicy aromas filled the air as St. Stephen Catholic Church parishioners cooked up Cajun concoctions in honor of a friend.
A last-minute addition to the 11th annual Spring Jubilee, the Rajun Cajun Cookoff was organized by St. Stephen Men's Club secretary Tom Gross to raise funds for Patrick Albert, the church's popular maintenance director who was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Albert and his family relocated to Bloomingdale from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their home in 2005. He quickly became involved with the nearby St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico and later joined the church's maintenance staff.
However, Albert is equally well known in the parish for bringing a Cajun flair to the Men's Club's annual Lenten fish fries and establishing what's become one of the Spring Jubilee's most popular food booths, the N'Awlins seafood booth.
"He's done so much for the parish and the Spring Jubilee, we wanted to do something for Patrick," said Gross. "I came up with the idea of a Rajun Cajun Cookoff because we used to do a chili cookoff at the Spring Jubilee and it always did quite well."
More than 200 people were on hand to sample the Cajun cooking provided by eight teams. Tasters paid $5 for the privilege of trying the various dishes and were invited to "vote" for their favorite dish with dollars in a tip jar.
Among the tasters was Albert's best friend, Neal Smith.
"I think Patrick was taken aback when he heard the parish was doing this for him," said Smith. "In fact, the whole family was taken aback. I don't think they expected the outpouring of support they've been receiving since he was diagnosed."
"This is just what a community does; it cares about and helps one another," said Gross. "And that's just what St. Stephen is--a community."
The hands-down favorite among Saturday's tasters was a crawfish chowder prepared by St. Stephen Arts and Environment Committee member Susan Arcand.
However, tasters agreed it was a tough choice. Parish manager Tom Doyle provided Cajun red beans and rice. Joy and Denny Fletter shared a dish they learned to cook while living in the South Carolina Low Country, spicy shrimp and grits. Men's Club members Chuck Pettet, Dave Nowak and Todd Girard offered three kinds of chili. Carmen Wilcoxen came with her own special chili recipe while Danielle Gross scooped out helpings of her dad, Tom's, homemade bean soup. Meanwhile, Mike Belekevich and Jill Kluge served up samples of Paella Laya.
The top three vote-getters received gift certificates donated by Bloomingdale Pizza, Beef O' Brady's and Buffalo Wild Wings.