Taste of Franklin: Chef in the Making
FRANKLIN LIVING— Since she was a little girl, Russellville’s Anna Beth Gunderman has loved cooking, with a favorite pastime being to get in the kitchen with her mother, Amy Gunderman, to help whip up a cake or other dish.
The Phil Campbell High School 2019 graduate put her cookery to the test this past spring in the Franklin County Beef Cook-off. After claiming first place in the senior division in the county, she leveled up to the state competition – where her tasty stuffed peppers wowed the judges for a second-place finish against amateur culinary students from across the state.
“My mom is my teacher, and she was really the one who encouraged me to do it. I love taking her class, and I love to cook,” said Anna Beth, who took on the local competition with five fellow students from her mother’s Family and Consumer Sciences classes.
Amy and Anna worked together to craft an award-winning recipe. With recipe guidelines requiring beef as a primary ingredient and dictating limited sodium and fat quantities, Anna said she ultimately merged two recipes for a low carb dish sure to please – Mexican Stuffed Bell Peppers.
“I just thought that would have a better chance of winning. People like stuff like that. It’s different and better for you,” Anna said. “It’s kind of like a taco but healthier for you. I love it.”
Although Anna described cooking as a creative outlet and stress reliever, Franklin County competition day wasn’t exactly stress-free.
“The day of the competition was the first time I had cooked (my recipe),” Anna said. “The recipe is really easy, so I knew pretty much what to do. I just had to follow the recipe really well.” She and her fellow competitors from Phil Campbell prepared their dishes at the school before carting them over to the A.W. Todd center for judging. “It was nerve-wracking because we were trying to cook in the kitchen and share utensils, and we wanted to be on time so we didn’t get points counted off or anything,” Anna said. “It was very chaotic. It wasn’t as bad for the older kids because we were more experienced, but for the younger kids, it was chaotic for them … I had a lot of good experience because of my mom, and I’m thankful for that.”
Although mother/teacher Amy and father Gary were excited when Anna won the local competition, the senior Bobcat upped the ante by continuing on at state.
“I was very excited. I was very proud of her,” said Amy, who accompanied Anna to the state competition in Montgomery. She said although she had high hopes for her daughter, she was still a little surprised she achieved second place. “I knew her dish would be good because they like things that are healthy and new, and that was actually a recipe we came up with and made it ourselves, so I knew it would be something different,” said Amy.
Although Anna Beth’s dish seemed like a winner, the competition was fierce, and the logistics were another challenge. “I had to take all of my pots and pans and knives and everything I needed because the kitchen was not equipped,” said Anna Beth, who cooked her dish for state at a hotel in Montgomery. An 11 p.m. grocery run the night before ensured fresh ingredients, and a 6 a.m. wake-up call was required to make the early arrival to the competition. Once there, she found herself nose to nose with culinary students in full chef uniforms – leaving her feeling intimidated in her jeans and T-shirt. “I just crossed my fingers the whole time,” Anna said. At first she didn’t think she had a chance, “but I looked down at my dish, and it looked pretty good.”
The judges apparently agreed, awarding her second place.
“It’s a real hearty dish,” said Amy, who described it as Mexican meatloaf in a pepper. “Most dishes that are stuffed peppers recipes all have rice in them. This is one of the very few that doesn’t.”
The Beef Cook-off was hosted by the Franklin County Cattlemen’s Association and the Franklin County Cooperative Extension. Coordinator Caleb Beason said the 2019 competition was a revival of the event, as the Cattleman’s Association used to host it long ago until it dropped off.
“It brings full circle the beef cattle industry and really shows the cycle from pasture to plate,” said Beason, who also helps coordinate the Junior Cattlemen’s Association and is the ag teacher at PCHS. Red Bay, Phil Campbell and Belgreen participated in this year’s resurgence of the local event, and Beason said he thought it went well, thanks to the participation of the FACS teachers, Extension director Katernia Cole-Coffey and 4H Agent Janet Lovelady in cooperation with the Cattlemen’s Association. “They did a great job helping me as far as determining the rules and setting up the guidelines,” said Beason. “It was just a really good effective collaborative effort.”
Like Anna and Amy, Beason was thrilled with her finish at state, especially given the fierce competition. “I was very excited, and the thing we were proud of is that some of those students there were trained by professional culinary experts,” Beason said. “That goes to show that no matter what background you have, our family and consumer science teachers are doing a great job portraying how beef should be on our plates and proper food preparation practices.”
“I really appreciate Caleb working with Franklin County Cattlemen’s Assocation to bring the competition back,” Amy said. “Kids need something to motivate, and they need things to be involved and to see how competition works … I’m hoping we’ll have more state winners from here on out, since we have the interest back. Kids are driven by competition – everything is competition with kids these days. Everybody wants to be a winner.”
Amy said of her three children, Anna is the one who has enjoyed being in the kitchen the most – but taking on the competition was still a challenge. “I’m proud of her for going out of her comfort zone and doing it,” Amy said. That initiative is what she wants from all her students. “They need to be able to take care of themselves and take care of their families one day,” she said. “Most of these kids are not going to be living at home. They are going to have to take care of themselves. A lot of kids these days are used to cooking convenience things out of a box, so when they have to cook with a recipe, it’s things they have never had, and people are so busy and eat a lot of fast food – people don’t eat at home as much as they used to.”
She’s not likely to see that problem with Anna Beth. “I like trying to cook new things. I like to be challenged,” Anna said. “I always like to watching the cooking shows on TV. I really like Chopped because they give you different ingredients, and you have to know how to work with them … I’m always on Pinterest looking at stuff. I like doing really creative things.
“I like making things from scratch. I made chocolate chip cookies one time from scratch and I didn’t think they were going to turn out very well, but they did. If I’m ever bored, I’m always digging through the pantry, trying to find stuff to cook.”
Anna Beth’s next challenge will be attending Northwest-Shoals Community College, with plans to continue into nursing school and become a registered nurse. “My dad’s a part-time nurse, and my sister is in nursing school. My dad has been nurse since before I was born,” Anna said. “I volunteered at Helen Keller last summer, and I worked in the volunteer lounge and labor and delivery, so that got me around a little bit of that, and I really enjoyed that.”
She encouraged other young people to take all the family and consumer sciences they can – “That’s something you’re going to need when you get out of high school. Mom teaches us how to cook but also how to sew, iron your clothes, interview tips, parenting tips, and you’re always going to need that kind of stuff no matter what you do” – and she thanked her family, Beason, PC Principal Gary Odom, Superintendent Greg Hamilton and the Franklin County Cattlemen’s Association for all their support “It was just a really good experience, and I’m glad I did it.”
Low Carb Mexican Stuffed Bell Peppers
1 ½ lb. lean ground chuck
6 large bell peppers – two green, two red and two orange or yellow
2 10-ounce cans of original Ro-tel tomatoes, drained
1 packet of taco seasoning
1 large onion
2 cups of Mexican cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil
Toppings: parsley, Tommy Toe Tomatoes, sour cream and chopped leafy green lettuce
- Brown ground chuck and onion. Drain fat. Add Ro-tel and taco seasoning and simmer for five minutes.
- While the meat is simmering, brush the peppers, inside and out, with olive oil and bake 10 minutes.
- Add one cup of cheese to the beef mixture, and stuff peppers with mixture. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and bake 10 minutes.
- Garnish with parsley and tomatoes.
- Serve with sour cream and lettuce.
Photos by Montana Hester