By Travis Sloat
Phoenix Staff Writer
Bernice Tharps said the ninth annual Soul Food Cookoff is an exceptional way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“I love the excitement,” Tharps said. “It’s all the people and trying to figure out if you’ll win. It’s a great event for Muskogee, and we’ll keep coming back every year they have it.”
Tharps and her sisters, Clorese Jones, Sharon Lewis and Angela Austin, were all busily serving hungry patrons on Saturday, dishing out their smoked pork roast, brown beans and ham, cornbread and sweet potato pie. To wash it all down, the sisters provided glasses of ice cold sweet tea.
The air in the Civic Center was filled with the smell of Southern “soul” food, and attendees were treated to the best the local cooks had to offer. After purchasing a tasting kit for $10, many of the hungry crowd made a beeline for the main floor of the building, where contestants were situated in a U shape.
Inez Bird of Okmulgee said she brought her father to the event to enjoy the good food and good times.
“This is the sixth year I’ve come out,” she said. “I like to come out to support my sisters, who are contestants. It also brings a lot of races together. The food is delicious, and I haven’t tasted anything I don’t like. We always enjoy it because the people are so friendly here.”
Eugene Grayson, Bird’s father, put his fork down only for a moment to put in a succinct word.
“All I’ll say is it’s good,” he said.
This year’s event featured a celebrity judge in Joe Horn, who played for the New Orleans Saints from 2000 to 2007.
Horn said he enjoyed all the food he got to taste.
“I tasted about 20-25 dishes,” Horn said. “I look for the best seasoned food. I want to taste the seasoning first. If the meat is seasoned well, then when sauce is added, it tastes better. I really appreciate Cassandra Gaines and the town of Muskogee for asking me to be here this year and letting me taste all this delicious food.”
Most participants spend a great deal of time getting their specialty dishes ready for a competition, and Tharps said she was no exception to that rule.
“I started yesterday at 8:30 in the morning,” she said. “I didn’t get to bed until after midnight, then I was right back at it at 5:30 this morning. I like to have everything just right. I take a day off to do this, and it’s relaxing. I enjoy cooking so I do most of it, then my sisters come alongside to help me serve.”
Tharps also said she hoped her smoked pork roast would take home the prize money again this year.
“It’s won before,” she said. “I just hope it can do it again.”
Alisha Tanksley, vice president for the Muskogee Chamber of Commerce, praised Gaines for her work on the cookoff.
“We’ve been here since the first one,” Tanksley said. “We love supporting what she’s done. She’s turned it into a full weekend event. This is a really great event for Muskogee.”
Reach Travis Sloat at (918) 684-2908 or tsloat@muskogee phoenix.com.