, Muskogee, OK

January 16, 2014

Amateur chef ready for cook-off

By Leilani Roberts Ott
Phoenix Correspondent

— Sour cream biscuits that melt in your mouth are just one of the tastes you can experience at the 10th annual Soul Food Cook-Off from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Muskogee Civic Center.

Organizer Cassandra Gaines said each Cook-Off group usually enters more than one entry in the five categories — meat, vegetable, dessert, bread and miscellaneous. Last year’s cook-off had 15 participants, and more are expected this year. Admission is $10 per person, which allows you to taste everything from sour cream biscuits to sweet potato cheesecake with candied pecans made by Ashley Davis of Muskogee.

Davis also will enter his mahogany glazed ribs, seasoned green beans and buttermilk fried chicken. The celebrity judges include Philip Dobard, the vice president of Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans and chef Brandon Boudet of Los Angeles.

Gaines, the Civic Center’s manager, said the purpose of the cook-off is to keep “our history and culture of soul food alive.”

Davis, 34, said it’s not about a black or white thing.

“It’s about sharing experiences of life and love with each other and bridging the gaps,” he said. “Food is something that bridges those gaps.”

Davis, a student pastor at Life Church in Muskogee, said he’s a self-taught chef who learned about cooking for the soul from his grandmother Era Jo Barnes of Scottsboro, Ala.

“I spent summers growing up in Alabama with my grandmother,” Davis said. “We picked okra, shucked corn, snapped beans and I would can with my grandmother.”

As for his recipes, those are trial and error. His wife of six years, Katy Davis, likes it when he tries a new recipe because she doesn’t like to cook. That gives her more time to care for their 3-month-old daughter, Ainsley Kate.

Davis has been wanting to enter the Soul Food Cook-Off for three years, and this year he finally can. Four years ago doctors said he had leukemia. Then the leukemia led to heart failure, which at one point left only 20 percent of his heart pumping. Last June, he had a stroke caused by a blood clot on the left side of his brain. He has speech therapy once a week.

“I say ‘keep on going,’” he said. “I’ve had a passion for cooking. It’s inside of myself. I try to make it special. I love to cook for people.”

He hopes to someday cook for weddings or special events. He would even like to open a restaurant designed like an old-school diner with great dishes.

For the Soul Food Cook-Off, he’ll simmer his green beans for eight hours so all the seasoning will get in, he said. He uses salt pork, onion, and chicken and beef broth.

The chicken breasts for his buttermilk fried chicken are marinated in buttermilk and six spices for 24 hours before cooking.

“It took me two years to get the right flavor for the chicken,” he said.

The sour cream biscuit dough is dropped, kneaded and rolled more than seven times before being cut into large biscuits and baked. You can taste a hint of sour cream and sugar in the biscuits.

The secret to a rack of Davis’ mahogany glazed ribs right off the smoker is the pecan wood he uses while smoking them for four hours. The rub includes 14 different seasonings.

“The food is about what’s inside you . . . to create something from your soul,” he said.

If you go

WHAT: Soul Food Cook-Off.

WHEN: Noon to 3 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Muskogee Civic Center.

COST: $10 per person.

PROCEEDS: Used as prize money for first through third place in five categories.

INFORMATION: (918) 684-6363.