By Friday afternoon, the ovens will be in place, the skillets will be ready, and finalists will have perfected their recipes.
All this work will come to fruition on Saturday as the 17th annual National Cornbread Cook-off, sponsored by Lodge Manufacturing, maker of cast-iron cookery, and Martha White, maker of cornmeal and other baking products, begins in South Pittsburg.
Setting up the festival is a massive undertaking for a town with a population of just 3,300, says Jeanne Scholze of Lodge Manufacturing. "Just about every adult is doing something, and many of the South Pittsburg High School students are helping Friday and throughout the weekend," she says.
One of the biggest events is the cook-off, and the recipes are looking good, says Martha White spokeswoman Courtney Eller.
"As always, we love the delicious ideas entrants come up with, year after year," she says.
It's the versatility of cornbread that makes this cook-off so interesting, says Martha White baking expert Linda Carmen.
"The flavor of cornmeal is mild enough to pair well with flavorful and/or spicy ingredients, but does have a subtle, rich flavor that adds depth to the recipe," Carmen says.
Some of the more interesting recipes that have come from creative cooks over the years include Cilantro Lime Dumplings in Chorizo Chicken Soup, she says. "It turned out to be one of our all-time, best-tasting favorites. We just couldn't quite imagine how the flavors were going to come together."
The recipe for Monte Cristo Cornbread Skillet Supper also wowed the folks at Martha White. The strata made with cubes of cornbread had the taste and texture of spoonbread, Carmen notes.
Once again, the winner will proudly wear the cast-iron crown and receive $5,000 and a stainless-steel gas range valued at more than $3,000 from Brown Stove Works. The only change to the cook-off this year will be the placement of judges, Eller says. In past years, they've been secreted in a tent, removed from the cooks and the crowds. This year, they'll be in the middle of the action.
"People will be able to watch them interact onstage with the finalists and taste the dishes," she adds.
The festival is all weekend, but the cook-off is on Saturday. The 10 finalists will begin cooking at 1 p.m., with winners announced later in the afternoon as activities move to Citizens Park Stage.
Here is the recipe for Monte Cristo Cornbread Skillet Supper, fashioned by Janice Elder of Charlotte, N.C., who took first-place honors in the 1996 cook-off.
Monte Cristo Cornbread Skillet Supper
1 (6-ounce) package Martha White Cotton Country Buttermilk Cornbread Mix
Nonstick cooking spray
1 1/2 cups chopped cooked turkey
1/2 cup chopped cooked ham
1 1/2 cups shredded Swiss cheese
4 large eggs
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons honey mustard, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup currant jelly
Prepare cornbread mix according to package directions, except bake in a 101/2-inch cast-iron skillet (cornbread will be thin). Remove cornbread from skillet; cool and cut into cubes. Wipe out skillet with paper towels; spray generously with nonstick cooking spray.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place cornbread cubes in skillet. Top with turkey, ham and cheese. In medium bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon honey mustard, salt and pepper until well blended. Pour evenly over ingredients in skillet. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until set and lightly browned.
Melt currant jelly by warming slightly. Add 1 tablespoon honey mustard; whisk to blend. Remove skillet from oven. Cut in wedges, sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve with currant jelly and mustard sauce.