DENHAM SPRINGS -- The food was ready.
Stretching down one row of tables in Abundant Life Church’s Outreach Center were trays containing freshly-cooked wild hog, bacon-wrapped deer poppers, smoked turkey, chicken leg quarters and boudin.
Laid atop another row of tables were containers holding deer sauce piquant, seafood or chicken or goose gumbo, as well as raccoons and rabbit.
There were other more common dishes available, too, including jambalaya and pastalaya, hamburgers and fried catfish, briskets and ribs, or chicken fettuccine.
Yet despite the great the variety of food that was sending a mouth-watering aroma of spices and seasoning in the air, there was something noticeably missing — the salad bar.
But that’s not what these ticket buyers — almost 600 hungry boys and men — came for.
“Salad?” exclaimed volunteer Mindy Hagan. “These guys don’t want no salad.”
On this night, they surely didn’t.
Boys and men of all ages got their fill during Abundant Life Church’s annual Wildgame Cookout, an tradition that started 27 years ago and has grown into one of the church’s most popular community outings.
For $15 a ticket, young boys and old men alike were treated to all they meat they could eat, a point of emphasis for the event since the first one was held in the early 1990s.
“We completely ran out of food that first year,” said ALC pastor Greg Beatty, “and we made it a point of emphasis after that, that we’d never run out of food again. This has turned into a feast like none other.”
The Wildgame Cookout started under Beatty’s father and the church’s founder, Richard Beatty, who wanted to give the church’s hunters a way to “clean out their fridge.” A crowd of 100 people showed up to the first cookout — bigger than anyone expected, Greg Beatty said — as men dined on deer meat and other wild game until there was nothing left.
They haven’t run out since, Greg Beatty said.
“When it comes to the food, my dad also said, ‘I want the last guy in line to get as much food as the first guy in line,’” he said. “That happens every year now.”
Between 30 and 40 volunteers from the church pitched in for the cookout, which was held Thursday, Jan. 24. All workers operated under the steady hand of Jerry Hagan, a church member Greg Beatty playfully referred to as “Chief of the Wildgame Cookout.”
“I make sure it’s done,” Hagan said as he used his red apron to clean seasoning off his hands. “That’s my job, and I have to taste everything. I’ve probably sampled everything three or four times now.”
But exactly how much food is required to feed 600 men?
A lot, Hagan said.
There were 100 pounds of catfish, 150 pounds of ribs, 120 pounds of leg quarters, a dozen briskets, another dozen pork tenderloins and whole hams, four wild hogs and five raccoons. This doesn’t include the many pots of jambalaya, pastalaya and gumbo.
Though there was no salad bar, there were healthy options such as corn on the cob, green beans, potatoes and yams. For dessert, a church member donated 12 sheet cakes.
After two full days of preparation, dinner was ready to be served by 7 p.m., when boys and men filled the 53 tables set up in the Outreach Center and waited for their table to be called. Groups would cheer whenever their table was the next one up — a sight that has become all too common at the cookout.
“This is a community event really, and it’s kind of built up its own following,” Greg Beatty said. “Guys look forward to this every year. It’s been 27 years now, but it gets bigger and better every year. I don’t know how, but every year we find a way to top the year before.”