FRANKLIN PARISH’S CATFISH CARNIVALE
Some people call them chuckleheads, river cats or mud cats. Dipped and fried in a golden cornmeal batter with a crunchy side of hush puppies, catfish have become an immortal staple to downhome cooking south of the Mason Dixon line. In North Louisiana where the delicious cuisine remains more true to traditional Southern fare from the more exotic and spicy food found in the southern half of the state, the catfish is most revered. Geared to celebrate this fish with the whiskers on their fins, the town of Winnsboro in Franklin Parish hosts the largest one-day festival in the Bayou State.
Although it lies near the beautiful Ouachita River, a haven for catfish noodlers and anglers, the origins of the Franklin Parish Catfish Festival lie not in wildlife sportsmanship, but in the industry of aquaculture. While the oil industry in the 1980s bottomed out in Louisiana, Franklin Parish was experiencing a successful new emerging industry: aquaculture in the form of farm-raised catfish. The Wisner area was dotted with thousands of acres of man-made catfish ponds, and although only one processing plant existed at the time, blueprints for a second one and a feed mill were already in the works. The teeming success of the new venture inspired the idea of building a festival around the theme of catfish as a means to promote the town of Winnsboro and Franklin Parish.
In 1986, fishing around for ideas, leaders from the area held brainstorming sessions to angle their ideas for the formation of a festival. Committees, chairpersons and duties were assigned. The Winnsboro Elementary School was the site of the first festival replete with food and craft booths, catfish plates cooked in the school cafeteria, Civil War reenactment and a 5-kilometer run combined with a lot of family-oriented fun. Attendance was marked at 6,000; by 1990, the festival drew nearly 20,000 people annually and mushroomed from the school grounds to take over the entire downtown district of Winnsboro. Three thousand pounds of catfish were fried, and 250 booth spaces were rented.
The festival continues to thrive; church groups fry most of the catfish while live, high-quality gospel and country musicians keep the festivalgoers entertained. Thousands stroll the vibrant streets of Winnsboro partaking of the numerous food, craft and educational booths. Manned by local merchants and craftsmen, the booths are a means to promote local economy and raise funds for Franklin Parish nonprofit groups. In the past, traveling exhibits enjoyed by the crowds included the Blue Dog Exhibit at the Old Post Office Museum and the Moving Vietnam Wall Memoriam. Children have enjoyed the engaging dog show and horsed riding provided by “Friends of Skidboot.”
Other festivities include the GeauxFit Catfish Classic 5K Race, an antique car show, softball tournament and annual flower show.
PRINCESS THEATRE OF WINNSBORO
The Princess Theatre in Winnsboro originated in 1925 and was later located to a building built in 1907. In 1985, due to a huge multi-screened theatre in Monroe’s Pecan Mall, it shut down. Impassioned community members resurrected the old silent movie-era theater after Rowena Ramage donated it to the city. In 1993, renovations began on the beautiful old theater and transformed it into a lovely venue for live musical and theatrical entertainment as well as educational forums that continues through today. In 2002 the Governor’s Arts Award program described it as the catalyst that transformed Winnsboro’s historic district, stating “it has transformed cultural opportunities in Northeast Louisiana and continues to be a model for success throughout the region.”
The Franklin Parish Catfish Festival will be held April 12.
Princess Theatre, 714 Prairie St., Winnsboro; (318) 435-6299.
EGG-KNOCKING IN MARKSVILLE
In 1956, during the mayoral term of Edgar Coco, and at his own suggestion, the town of Marksville in Avoyelles Parish passed a city ordinance concerning the practice of “Pacques Pacques.” Also known as egg-knocking on Easter Sunday morning – what was usually done informally between family and friends for generations – knocking dyed Easter eggs, usually tip to tip, to see which one would be the first to crack, became an official public event practiced each year in Marksville’s Courthouse Square. The name “Pacques,” French for Easter is also a throwback to the “pock-pock” sound the eggs make when they go huevo a huevo at one another. The owner of the cracked egg must forfeit his wounded warrior to the victor as a spoil of war and step down. This is no free-for-all melee filled with shattered eggshells. To win the cash prize, egg-knocking contestants must first officially register in respective categories. When the call to start egg knocking is sounded, participants have been lined up in pairs and must knock egg to egg at the same time. Round after round, they go until – by the power of shattered elimination – the winner emerges triumphant (without cracking up from the stress of the competition). It requires shells of steel.
This Marksville tradition beloved by children of all ages wasn’t the product of mid-century whimsical spring fever madness – whether you call it by its other names of egg-tapping or egg-jarping, the origins of this Easter competition began in medieval Europe as part of Easter festivals. During Pagan spring fêtes, the egg was considered a symbol of the rebirth of man. The first Christians used the egg to symbolize man’s spiritual rebirth through the death and resurrection of Christ at Easter. (The name Easter is a derivation from the name of the Teutonic goddess of spring, Eastre or Eostre.) Egg-knocking is practiced in Croatia, England, Greece, the Netherlands, Germany and Romania. The older generations of Marksville used wildflowers, coffee grounds, berries, roots, even chimney soot to make dyes to color the eggs. If there’s ample competition among egg types, chicken, duck, turkey and guinea eggs can be entered in the contest.
In Marksville, preparations for the egg-knocking contest begin long before the church bells toll on Easter morning. A deliberate scientific and selective approach has been utilized months before to find the perfect egg with the hardest shell that will shatter inferior eggs. No one would ever boil and dye store-bought eggs for this heat. Marksville residents who don’t keep their own chickens have coop connections with neighbors and friends who raise chickens. Yard chickens may not be prolific egg layers, but given a good diet particularly rich in calcium and combined with all the fresh air outdoor exercise, they can produce some of the toughest of shells. Hens especially need calcium, and caring chicken owners usually feed them food rich in vitamins, minerals and even bits of oyster shells. Seasoned knockers test the eggs for hardness by lightly tapping on their own teeth; the harder eggs make a high-pitched sound while a blunt sound spells doom for the egg.
Once the best eggs have been selected, careful preparation must follow. Slow boiling is a must to prevent eggs from rolling in the pot. It’s best to boil the eggs point down, and some have found the best method is to just boil them in a cardboard egg carton. As an added measure of caution, the best eggs are also boiled in coffee grounds to add to their harder outer layer, then dyed in beautiful shades of blue, fuchsia, orange, purple, green and yellow. It’s a lovely sight on Easter morning to see people in their finery arrive at the courthouse with baskets filled with colored eggs while the sounds of laughter and happy chatter carries through the spring air like ribbons on an Easter bonnet.
Marksville Easter Egg Knocking Contest, Sunday, April 20, Marksville Courthouse Square, Mark Street, Marksville.
LAKE CHARLES CRAWFISH FEST
One Good Friday evening when I was 13 and spending the Easter weekend in rural central Louisiana, I visited relatives whose home had two kitchens. The first was large with many countertops, cabinets and very modern appliances; it was always empty of both people and food cooking. The second was a lower side room with a back door that was always open onto green farm fields. It possessed a water heater; an old gas stove topped with a drip coffee pot; fridge; a small table and plenty of rocking chairs. The second kitchen was usually filled with family members and the smell of my Aunt Hazel’s divine cooking. On this particular Good Friday night, her son Van introduced me to the joy of her delicious, unforgettable crawfish etouffee. Years later, as an adult, it was my grave misfortune to develop an allergy to the little mudbug; however, one night when I smelled etouffee simmering in the black cast-iron skillet of my mother, I broke a long abstinence and ate three plates as if I had been starving for a month – it took three Benadryls to get the welts that covered me to subside. But for the moment, it had all been worth it.
In an article in this publication in 2007 titled “Our Native Critter: A History of Crawfish,” Stanley Dry notes that, while the Native Americans of early Louisiana not only embraced but introduced our beloved little mudbugs to European settlers, the Acadians were slow to warm up to crawfish. Eschewing, not chewing, the delicacy found so prolifically throughout Cajun Country, the crawfish, presently considered synonymous with Cajun cuisine, did not rise to that prestigious level with the descendants of Acadia until the 1950s. According to Dry, crawfish were once stigmatized as “poverty food.” Rural Louisianians during the Great Depression seemed to prefer to go hungry rather than heed the advice of Red Cross workers and government agencies that extolled the little crustacean as a viable and thrifty source of protein. Indeed, minus the salt in boiled crawfish, and the heavy cream and butter ingredients of some crawfish dishes, crawfish are low in calories and filled with protein. Except for being served as bisques for the upper crust Acadians, less wealthy Cajuns only ate mudbugs boiled during the penitent season of Lent. Ironically, in an area that once turned up its nose on crawfish, feelers and claws came full circle to burst into a resurrection of celebratory legend with dishes infused by the resourcefully flavorful genius of Cajun cookery: flaky crawfish pies, etouffees, stews, bisques and the treasure trove flung unceremoniously on a table’s surface – cayenne red crawfish, corn on the cob, new potatoes, garlic cloves, onions and lemons boiled together in spicy seasoned water, washed down with ice cold beer.
The joy this little critter brings to Louisiana – and now the world – was too large to contain to mere dining tables and kitchens. As though to make up for its former slight, Acadiana began to revere mudbugs with almost wild abandon.
April in Louisiana is an exquisite month filled with days beautifully etched in sunlight, profound blue skies and air scented with wisteria, jasmine and the warming earth. Since spring and crawfish go hand-in-hand, each April The Original Downtown Lake Charles Crawfish Festival rocks the Southwest Louisiana town. This lovely, hospitable city hosts the festival that offers three days of mudbug mania. Wishing to keep the pot fires burning to let the world know it’s crawfish season, the festival is also dedicated to keep alive the history of the mudbug and the mighty way Louisiana has benefited from its industry. Additionally, the festival seeks to boost area vendors, restaurateurs, and craftsmen by renting booths only to the locals. It offers a midway carnival, art show and art walk throughout downtown Lake Charles galleries. Thrown into the mix is a parade, pageant, live music and “Conversation With the Greats,” which tells the history of Cajun and Creole culture.
And at the heart of the celebration is its cause – 10,000 pounds of boiled crawfish, a crawfish eating contest, etouffees, pies and a poster contest.
The Original Downtown Lake Charles Crawfish Festival: April 11-13, 2014. (337) 310-0083, downtowncrawfest.com
BLUES FESTIVAL IN BATON ROUGE
One very cold January night when I was 15, my elderly great uncle Paulin (“Paul”) died, and my mother and I traveled to his rural hometown for his wake and funeral. The night before the services, I slipped outside of another uncle’s home into the crystalline and pitch-black cold, and a black man in a khaki cap and work clothes appeared. He walked to my uncle’s house to pay respects, and I heard him weep because Uncle Paul had been so good to him. Then he disappeared into the darkness, and a few minutes later the sound of his singing carried through the air. It was an eerily beautiful and soulful sound of grief that mesmerized me. I didn’t know then I had just encountered my first taste of Swamp Blues in its purest form. I was to think of him later when I first heard the recordings of Muddy Waters and Slim Harpo.
The swamp blues movement was born in Baton Rouge and came to the foreground of the blues scene in the 1950s, largely due to the promotion of Crowley-based record producer J.D. Miller. It was a different type of blues, a sub-genre with simple, plaintive lyrics that cut to the genuine heart of the matter. If your heart has been broken or you’ve fallen on troubled times, or just simply love someone to the gills, listening to it can be like sitting down to talk with a kindred spirit. I like to think that people who aren’t in denial understand and embrace Swamp Music. It has a lazy, laid-back tempo that flows as rhythmically as the Mississippi River, as though the echoes of soul, zydeco, Cajun and New Orleans blues were poured through a sieve to create it. It has an economy of percussion, haunting echoes, guitars played by someone who seemingly sold their soul to the devil and intense, strident harmonica work all of which can raise the hackles of your skin.
Artists like Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim had national hits in the ‘60s. Along with them the work of piano player Katie Smith, Lonesome Sundown, Lazy Lester, Silas Hogan, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Henry Gray reached across the pond to influence the British Invasion of the ‘60s. Their work was performed by the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. Bob Dylan, whose earlier works were filled with intense guitar work and harmonica solos, as a teenager in Minnesota listened to an obscure radio station broadcast from New Orleans that played the blues.
Since 1981, Baton Rouge holds in glorious April air one of the oldest blues festivals in America. The Baton Rouge Blues Festival celebrates and preserves the legacy of the legendary Swamp Blues artists while promoting and supporting contemporary artists like the internationally known Tab Benoit, Larry Garner, Kenny Neal with sibling Lil Ray and Luther Kent. The festival has drawn the likes of Bobby Blue Bland, Grammy winner Ruthie Foster and Marcia Ball. Visitors are encouraged to take side trips to other Swamp Blues enclaves such as Phil Brady’s that has held a record 21-year-long Thursday night blues jam and Teddy’s Juke Joint in Zachary.
In addition to sponsoring the festival, the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation is dedicated to celebrating, preserving and fostering this rich slice of Louisiana culture that rose from the heart and soul of the Bayou State with programs like the Blues Education program, Blues Music History project and the star-studded Blue Carpet Blues Gala as a major fundraising event.
The Baton Rouge Blues Festival, April 12, 2014.
CELEBRATING TENNESSEE WILLIAMS IN NEW ORLEANS
The exterior of a two-story corner building on a street in New Orleans named Elysian Fields … the houses are white framed … with rickety outside stairs and galleries … the section is poor but has a raffish charm … it is first dark of an early evening in May. The sky that stains around the dim white building is a peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism … you can almost feel the warm breath of the brown river beyond the river warehouses with their faint redolence of coffee and bananas … two women, one white and one colored are on the steps of the building … the colored woman is a neighbor for New Orleans is a cosmopolitan city where there is relatively warm and easy intermingling of races in the old part of town …
– A Streetcar Named Desire, Act One, Scene One.
When I first read the opening scene of Streetcar many years ago, I had the most intense rush of emotion almost akin to seeing my life pass before me, at least the life I had witnessed and known in New Orleans. No other words beforehand had ever given voice to the soulful intimacy and love I felt for my hometown, nor had any words acted as a paintbrush to display my own impressions locked in my heart. I became hooked on Tennessee Williams.
Arguably the greatest playwright of the 20th century, to my knowledge there’s no festival that celebrates William Inge, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill. But in New Orleans for the last 27 years, we have celebrated Tennessee Williams in five days of an almost-bacchanalian literary and performing arts fest. He was the genius who gave us colorful, flawed characters who took hold of our hearts and held our attention. He gave us Alma Winemiller in Summer and Smoke, whose victory was both her downfall and her beginning. Big Daddy’s cries of “Mendacity!” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof served as a metaphor for the denial crippling his family; healing only begins once the desperate truths are finally spoken. Williams was a master at painting vivid portraits of the holes we can all bury ourselves in with our own hands and how we can rise while staring at the stars.
A stellar commingling of writers, musical artists, scholars and actors will join the vast amount of international visitors to the land of Stanley and Blanche to feast on not only the works of Tennessee, but to share their own thoughts and creativity his brilliant work inspired. Guests will be treated to his short works, The Hotel Plays, at the historic Hermann Grima House, and a few blocks away on Elysian Fields, the Southern Repertory Theater will stage one of my favorite Williams play, The Night of the Iguana. Performances by renowned clarinetists Dr. Michael White and Tom Sancton are part of the “Drummer and Smoke” Sunday series of musical entertainment. Additional sites around the French Quarter for celebration, panel discussions and meetings include the Beauregard-Keyes House, Muriel’s Jackson Square, Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Hotel Monteleone. Foodies will love a panel discussion on cuisine mentioned in his work. “At Tennesee’s Table,” wine with hors d’oeuvres will be served.
Also included are a French Quarter Literary Walking Tour, a book fair and master classes conducted by renowned authors. Adding their talents to the literary celebration are authors Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of North Carolina) and Hector Als (White Girls) and Oscar-nominated actress Diane Ladd. Actress Judith Chapman will stage Vivien, her acclaimed one-woman play about Vivien Leigh, who played Blanche DuBois in the movie version of Streetcar.
As usual, the annual Stanley and Stella shouting contest will close out the five-day celebration in Jackson Square.
The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, March 19-23, 2014.
Contact, (504) 581-1144, tennesseewilliams.net.