Cornbread with a Cajun twist

Kristina Stafford
Judy Armstrong’s Spinach and Artichoke Cornbread was modeled on an old family favorite.

It’s not a secret that cornbread is a Southern tradition. What are Red Beans and Rice without a nice, buttery slice of cornbread to sop it up with? Cornbread has become more than a side item in the South, and it has even been called the cornerstone of the Southern Kitchen. It is so important, in fact, that South Pittsburgh, Tennessee dedicates an entire weekend to it.

The last weekend of April brought this rather tasty festival to Tennessee: The National Cornbread Festival, that is. Fifteen years in the making, this annual event draws cornbread connoisseurs from all over the country, and the results are absolutely delicious.

One of Prairieville’s very own, Judy Armstrong, has participated in the National Cornbread Cook-off twice in the past, and once again participated this year, making her brand-new recipe along with nine other finalists for the cook-off at the Festival.

“I participated in the cook-off in the past, placing 3rd place one year and really messing up my own recipe another year.  It is a great cook-off and the festival is a lot of fun so I wanted to be able to go back with members of my family and enjoy a great time.” Armstrong said of the festival.

Though the recipe was created entirely by Armstrong herself, family has been a huge influence on her cooking. Using one of her family's favorite appetizers as inspiration, Armstrong created a dish that delighted and impressed the judges.

“The recipe was created in an attempt to make an entree from one of our family's favorite appetizers, Spinach and Artichoke Dip.  So I combined this favorite appetizer with fresh Louisiana gulf shrimp and cornbread to make a one-dish entree - plus it is so quick to make.”

Cooking in your own kitchen is one thing, but the added pressures of competition bring a new layer of difficulty to cooking. Armstrong, however, remained calm as she told of her strategy for being relaxed in front of the judges.

“Practice, practice, practice.” Armstrong said jovially. “It is always so easy to cook at home among family and friends.  Competition brings on a little more pressure to tend to all the details so I always practice.”

A mother of four, a wife, and a principal at St. Thomas Moore Catholic School, Armstrong has plenty of help when it comes to taste-testing her dishes. Cooking is something Armstrong wants to share with her family, as she fondly remembers cooking with her family as a child.

“As a young child, I watched my parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins laugh and play as everyone crowded into a small kitchen to prepare family meals.  This is a memory that I want to share with my family. We may not be able to share hours at a time in the kitchen due to my full-time work schedule and their after school activities, but the times we do spend we enjoy experimenting with new flavors and new recipes.”

Armstrong made it clear that there are no shortcuts or “secret weapons” used in her recipe.

“I wish I had one!  I usually cook from scratch but find that for cornbread, the mixes work better for me. Also, it has to be made in a cast iron skillet for the crispy, lightly browned crust,” Armstrong explained.

The cooking competition is only one aspect of the National Cornbread Festival, which has been named one of the top 20 events of the year by the Southeast Tourism Society.

“We're thrilled to receive this honor again this year,” Ed Fuller, president of the National Cornbread Festival, said in a press release. “To be recognized along with major Southeastern events creates a lot of pride for our community. None of our success would happen without the more than 1,000 volunteers. They are the superstars of the National Cornbread Festival.”

Along with the cook-offs, the National Cornbread Festival featured arts and crafts, music, Camp Dutch Oven cooking demonstrations and much more.