SOUTHERN U.S. food is known forits rich, well-seasoned, often spicy flavoruniquely developed from French, Africanand American influences to infuse cookingstyles such as Tex-Mex, Creole, Cajunand barbecue. Last week, this flavor andflair was stirred up here in Costa Rica, ina Southern U.S. cooking contest.The First Southern CulinaryCompetition took place at the Inter-American University’s Inter-AmericanHotel School in Heredia, north of SanJosé. Founded in 1998, the school boastsmore than 400 alums and was pleased tohost the event, according to DirectorMaría Andrea Arias, who said events ofthis type reflect the university’s interestin providing its students with diverseexperiences.The event was sponsored by theSouthern United States Trade Association(SUSTA), an organization founded in1973 and consisting of the Department ofAgriculture of 15 U.S. states and PuertoRico. Among SUSTA’s goals are promotingand increasing international awarenessof the high-value food and agriculturalproducts of Southern U.S.exporters. By bringing the cooking contestto Costa Rica, SUSTA hopes toawaken interest in Southern U.S. foodand promote its products in CentralAmerica.THE competition took place in anauditorium with seating for 100 peopleand a cooking range in the front of theroom. Despite the capacity limits, dozensof people periodically crowded in at theback of the room to watch the contest,undoubtedly lured in by the rich cookingaromas. Displayed in the room were traditionaland popular Southern seasonings,such as curry powder, bronze blackeningpowder, hot pepper sauce, cayennepepper sauce, Worcestershire sauce, barbecuesauce, hot mustard and “BoneSucking Sauce.”Nine chefs were invited to participate,with two to four competing daily inthe three-day competition. Each chef wasgiven a maximum of one hour to prepareand complete a main dish of duck, lobsteror fish with an original or existingrecipe.Five judges, all established CostaRican chefs, decided the winner based onthe flavor and nutrition of the dish, inaddition to a verbal explanation of thesteps in the recipe and the final presentationof the dish. The judges also took intoaccount the written document each chefhad to submit, which contained researchabout an aspect of Southern U.S. cultureand described what inspired them tochoose the recipe they prepared.GUSTAVO Villalobos, an instructor atthe Arcam Gourmet School in San José, took first place with his three Tex-Mexceviches and blackened Cajun duck withcornbread and green tomatoes. Secondplace went to Hernán Díaz, a chef at theCosta Rica Marriott in Belén, west of SanJosé, who prepared a “Southern-style redsnapper dish.”THE contest was so close that bothchefs were awarded scholarships and all expenses-paid trips to the Chef John FolseCulinary Institute in Louisiana, wherethey will complete a three-week program.Located in Thibodaux, Louisiana, in theheart of Cajun and Creole country, 50miles south of New Orleans, the instituteis dedicated to preserving Louisiana’s richculinary heritage and has more than 7,000students.The same competition took placesimultaneously in El Salvador. From nowuntil October, SUSTA will be hostingevents in 20 countries, including Mexico,Chile and the Dominican Republic. Forinformation, visit www.susta.org.