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Gumbo Ya Ya fest first run in Woodland

On Saturday, June 28, 2014 the first Gumbo Ya Ya produced by Louisiana Sue Ramon took place in Woodland at the Yolo County Fairgrounds from noon to 9:00 p.m. The event provided a variety of food vendors and a great lineup of bands as well as a children's play area, a few merchant vendors and a fun parade consisting of school groups, costumed participants like pirates and early era dress with most ladies carrying parasols, cheerleaders, band members and more.

Michael Jeffries with BeauFunk, formerly with Tower of Power
Susan Raines
Colorful costume in the Gumbo Ya Ya parade
Susan Raines

Visitors came and went, some brought chairs to stay the day to supplement the picnic tables and other wooden benches near the main stage. Lines for food could be seen at various booths throughout the day but few people seemed to be scoping the merchant and information booths on the other side of the festival venue where the second stage was located.

The day was quite warm but there was an adequate number of trees to provide sporadic shade. Drinks were also available for purchase with southern style sweet tea, lemonade, water and alcoholic beverages including some mixed drinks particularly fitting for the gumbo theme with "Our Gumbo Mary," "Fire on the Bayou (Fire Ball Whisky & Swamp Water)," and Margaritas.

Available foods included gumbo, of course, and a variety of selections from Soul to Latin and Cajun/Creole/Caribbean. Perhaps one of the most disappointing aspects of the festival was the limited amount of Gumbo choices with four vendors ladling up the tasty dish. This was, after all, a festival with the name "Gumbo" in it and in some people's minds they were anticipating a greater number of gumbos to eat and sample. The other shortcoming regarding gumbo was that only one of the gumbo makers offered sample tastes. J & M Catering was friendly and very charming and asked no fee for the sample which even included a piece of shrimp.

Miniature bowls or big spoonfuls should perhaps have been offered at every gumbo vendor for a small fee in consideration that this festival was also a Gumbo Challenge to see who could sell the most gumbo. Three of the vendors were asking $10 for a bowl of their gumbo which, although reasonable, means doling out the bucks for a bowl only to discover you wish you'd had the other style. The fourth gumbo vendor was actually asking only half the price at $5 for a bowl and this was not only an extremely low price (by fair/festival standards) but he also had the best sausage which he proudly explained was made by himself. Steve Dornback of Smokin' Ewe BBQ should have won a prize for his sausage which was made from lamb. The exotic lamb ingredient actually put off many potential gumbo purchasers but, once tasted, it was a winner - yummy, spiced and seasoned to perfection, way to go Steve of the Smokin' Ewe BBQ!

While people chose their idea of the best gumbo or the best among the other options including frog legs and red beans and rice, the bands brought the festival to life with some great vibrations. Zydeco music, an ideal compliment to the festival theme, had many people on the dance floor in front of the main stage. Zydeco Flames is a well known band that frequently plays at the annual Sacramento Music Festival for thousands each year. They bring zip and flavor to the atmosphere and even come down off the stage to play in the audience.

BeauFunk followed Zydeco Flames at midday and brought on the Funk with a smash. Michael Jeffries from Tower of Power, even if unknown to those festival attendees who aren't hip to the '70s greats, was an incredible delight to hear. More great bands followed through the night, ending with headliner Element Brass Band who are known for bringing on some great horn action.

There were some high thumbs up and a few thumbs down at the Gumbo Ya Ya. Hopes are that the festival will become a growing annual event. First years for any festival are notoriously difficult and so challenging they may never appear again. The organizers, headed by festival creator Louisiana Sue Ramon, did a great job for a first run of a big event. Hopefully they will note and address some of the complaints that were overheard and noticed while the festival was in action. The thumbs down award goes to the long wait at one of the gumbo lines when it was being manned by only one lovely lady taxed to the limit. The line was moving slow but it came to a dead stop when they ran out of rice. Upon return, people were not appeased due to the fact that the rice they then served up was undercooked and there's nothing that will ruin a good gumbo faster than semi-hard rice. Sorry J&M Catering, we love you but that was a blunder many wish they hadn't tripped over. The cornbread included with the gumbo was, however, a big plus! Slightly sweet and ideally baked, it was an extra side not included in other gumbos.

The other gumbo thumbs down goes to serving a customer a container of gumbo that had no meat except a few scraps in the broth and rice. When the gumbo was returned with complaint, a new dish was gladly served up; however, that bowl of gumbo also lacked substance and consisted of very small sections of gator sausage cut into portions that when put together were probably less than three slices of sausage. Nothing else was in the broth which was admittedly tasty. Ouch! A tough one to swallow when paying $10 for gumbo.

The "Gumbo Challenge" was actually a test or challenge to see if typical ingredients like chicken and seafood would draw more purchases over exotic meats like gator and lamb sausage. The challenge had nothing to do with who made the best tasting Gumbo since it was not a cook-off or contest. The seafood gumbo appeared to be the most popular at certain times of the day and was also considered to be the most traditional by some attendees. However, others contested the statement and had their own ideas of what traditional gumbo should consist of in regard to ingredients. Crab, oysters, shrimp, chicken and sausage, okra or no okra. There were those who steered clear of the one that listed okra as a primary ingredient and, its easy to understand why when okra, if cooked improperly, can be rather unpleasant in its texture ..well, lets just say it, "slimy." (Not a reference to the festival preparation.) For those who enjoy plentiful okra, the gumbo bowls they served came out of the booth piled high with sausage.

Festival food lovers were giving thumbs up to the fried catfish, some of the desserts like peach cobbler and other tasty options. The biggest thumbs up goes to the festival price of $15 entrance fee due to the top caliber lineup of music that ran all day. People who like to dance were clearly getting their groove on in their various styles. While it was definitely a family friendly event, there were more adults than children in attendance but some little ones did get their feet tapping on the dance floor. Attendees included those from Woodland as well as those from Sacramento, Rocklin, and other regions that required a small drive to get to the Yolo Fairgrounds. The word gumbo does attract attention and hopes are the festival will return again next year and for many years to follow but perhaps with a bit more options in the gumbo department.

Louisiana Sue defines a Gumbo Ya Ya as a diverse gathering, diverse in food, people and music. In this respect the festival hit its mark. In attendees' perspective in Woodland, CA the gumbo phrasing brought to mind an extensive mix of Cajun spice, Creole recipes, food that reminds them of home or what their mommas and grandmas made. Without a doubt, many people had a great time gathering together, sharing a day of music and food, dance and fun but others were seeking something more. It remains to be seen if "more" of what they wanted will be delivered in years to come. Perhaps what those people are seeking is a Gumbo Cook-off and genuine Gumbo Contest rather than a Gumbo Ya Ya. Or perhaps their yearnings for certain tastes and flavors will only be fulfilled when grandmother's recipe is brought to life.