Small town charm is an idealized concept most often associated with places like Mayberry or Stars Hollow. Places we all wish we could visit, but they just simply don’t exist. While the most charming small towns may be fictional, Cookeville still has quite a bit of small charm to it, and last Friday even felt quite a bit like Stars Hollow might during one of Taylor Doose’s crazy town events. Of all the town events Cookeville hosts, none are quite as magical as Cooking on the Square.
Cooking on the Square does just what its title implies: folks come out to the court house square and they cook! This event serves as a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity and manages to pull our entire community together as we all prepare, serve, and enjoy! The premise is simple: cook teams prepare giant pots of gumbo and/or soups and set up around the court house square to serve patrons.
Patrons purchase a ceramic bowl for $20 as they enter the square, and for the next two and half hours, they roam from cook team to cook team enjoying as many tasty recipes as they can hold. For $20 they essentially get to enjoy an all you can eat buffet and take home a beautiful handmade bowl. The art students from the university begin shaping and glazing bowls months in advance, and even invite the public to come and help them during the “bowl-a-thon.”
Four years ago, the Special Event Coordinator for Athletics asked if I would be interested in running the CotS booth for Athletics while she was away on maternity leave. This was the first time I had even heard of Cooking of the Square. Marilyn and I put our heads together, developed a menu, and got to work. What a learning experience it was! We had a wonderful time cooking together and serving our black bean and sausage soup as well as green chili stew. When the next year rolled around, Mandy was back in the office full time and I was available to man a booth for A&B Taxidermy instead. Brinn and I decided that venison stew would make complete sense for a taxidermy shop to serve, and my grandmother decided to help us and volunteered to make her broccoli cheese soup. Kind of ironic for the taxidermy shop to serve one of the few vegetarian dishes at a food event, but it really worked for us!
This year made my fourth year of cooking at the courthouse square for Habitat, and our third year for representing A&B Taxidermy. Unfortunately Grandma was traveling out of state and unable to attend for her 3rd year, but she left me with her giant soup pot and a handwritten recipe to follow. She also gave me plenty of phone advice on my way to the grocery store to pick up all of the ingredients. I’m not going to say my soup is as good as Grandma’s, but I will say that many people came back for seconds and thirds!
Brinn really enjoys convincing non-adventurous eaters to try deer meat for the first time. We get an interesting assortment of patrons to visit our tent during the event. Many of them initially come over for the broccoli soup, then begin asking questions about the deer meat and if it tastes anything like beef stew. Then of course we always have the deer hunters in the crowd who come barrelling over to get at the venison stew before we run out. We made about 3 gallons of the broccoli soup this year, and around 6 gallons of the
venison stew. We still ran out of both! This year, we ran out of the broccoli soup only 45 minutes into the event. I even marked it off of our chalkboard menu in front of our tent, and people still kept coming by to see if we might have just a smidge left. Then we ran out of the venison stew just 30 minutes after that! This year we cooked 12 pounds of deer meat to go in that stew! I added 10
pounds of potatoes, two giant sacks of carrots, about 3 pounds worth of onions, two bags worth of celery, at least 5 quarts of beef broth, and countless bay leaves and garlic cloves to that giant pot. How did so much food disappear so quickly?!? The advantage of running out of soup so early was that we were free to pack up early and join the event as consumers. Brinn, Ian, and I were able to roam the street and eat our way from tent to tent until we were so full we thought we would burst.
Even though I should’ve quit eating about 4 bowls earlier than I did, it was so much fun to try a little bit of everything. The Cajun potato soup with andouille sausage put a nice spicy twist on a longtime favorite of mine; the many gumbos were all hearty with a variety of spice levels; and the chicken tortilla soup gave me a nice break from the many Cajun dishes. One stand served nothing but buttery, garlicky sauteed shrimp. Typically there is a line wrapped all the way around an intersection for these shrimp, but for once we managed to walk by with no line, and man, we surely took advantage. Of all the great choices though, my favorite is still the shrimp and grits. I may have gone back to the shrimp and grits tent three times over the course of the afternoon…
This year Cooking on the Square celebrated its 20th birthday by shattering its previous records. The event raised an outstanding $69,284 and had an estimated 2,900 to 3,000 attendance. We learned at the cook team dinner and meeting that it takes roughly $90,000 to build a Habitat house. This one event was just shy of building a home with its proceeds! CotS’s most recent Facebook post shared that the proceeds from CotS would be going towards building a home for a father and his daughter and would be ready by spring 2017 for them to move in. This is ministry folks. It just doesn’t get much better. A community of volunteers came together with their different skill sets, be it pottery, organizing, cooking, selling tickets, or even eating; and together we are all helping local families achieve the dream of home ownership.
Come join us next year for CotS to see for yourself what it’s all about. Buy a bowl and enjoy
a bite with some good company, but be on the lookout. If you look closely, you may see Taylor Doose and Sheriff Taylor sharing a quick grin as they nod their approval over Cookeville’s success for maintaining our small town charm.
Jewel’s Broccoli Soup Recipe
- 6 cups water
- 16 oz frozen (not fresh!!) broccoli
- 3/4 cup finely chopped onions
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons white pepper
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 8 ounces American cheese, shredded
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1/3 cup of flour
- 1/2 cup cold water
- Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil over high heat. Add broccoli and onions and boil for 12 minutes.
- Add all seasonings, put in shredded cheese until it melts.
- Add milk, cream, and butter.
- Heat until boiling (not rolling boil but hot).
- Add flour to cold water in a jar and shake to combine.
- Add flour slurry to the pot slowly and stir until the soup is the consistency of heavy cream.