"The South is a place. East, west, and north are nothing but directions."
--Letter to the editor, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1995
It's a warm, dry(ish) Friday afternoon in Louisiana, and I'm high-tailing it out of beautiful New Orleans for the small, not-so-scenic college town of Lafayette, Louisiana for a four day weekend on Halloween. To those who like Cajun music and Cajun culture, this makes perfect sense. This dubious demographic headed towards Lafayette includes a bunch of Louisianans, myself, and about thirty Alaskans, most of whom I've known for years.
I first stepped foot in Lafayette about two years ago, for Festival Acadien. I was living in Alaska at the time, and with the visit to Lafayette I was obeying the call of Eric Graves, Ray Garrity, and other "elders" as they are referred to in the Arctic. They are a group of talented musicians in their fifties living Alaska, who, through the decades of cabin living in various parts of the state, have formed a tight friendship based on music, Alaska, and, well, whiskey. They play American roots music, including but not limited to oldtime, bluegrass, and Cajun. And I, forever an aspiring oldtime musician, like the other initiates under the age of 50, admire their musicianship and adore their company. So when they said they were going to Lafayette for Festival Acadian, I and about 30 others from Alaska followed, as if we were caravaning the pied piper.
Festival Acadian did not disappoint. The music and musicians were amazingly talented and shockingly friendly. So friendly, in fact, one of my close oldtime girlfriends found herself a Cajun fiance at that very event. Fiances aside, the hospitality combined with a purview into the culture of Southern Louisiana was a true treat for us Alaskans, stranded by ourselves statewide through most of a 9 month winter, appreciative of kindness and fun.
Lafayette was my first realization that there is a part of this country where the roots of this truly American subculture thrives. A mix of hillbilly French, a touch of Creole, a lot of the South, Cajun culture is truly reflective of the American melting pot (a quality of the United States that I will always value as the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants).
So, when the elders changed course from Festival Acadien and put the Blackpot Festival on the calendar, over 30 Alaskans responded to the call, and so did I. But this time, now living in New Orleans, my commute was a little shorter. It was because of this I left New Orleans during one of its most cherished holidays, Halloween, and found myself driving through what seemed like a giant corridor of strip malls and box stores on the main thoroughfare of Lafayette.
Eventually I reached Acadian Village, a Cajun folk life museum comprised of a series of historic cabins and outbuildings, a blacksmith shop, a church, and a dancehall, all interspersed between open fields and bayou-like bodies of water. On this weekend it served as the site of Blackpot Festival.
The festival itself is the brainchild of the Red Stick Ramblers, a band of young, local musicians playing a combination of Cajun, gypsy and country swing. I first saw them perform about six years ago in snowy, mountainous Anchorage, when they were in their early twenties, energetic, and alive, and on tour. Since then their musicianship has only grown, with a huge repertoire and writing their own songs in this virtually self-created genre of American roots music. Their dedication to not only the technical aspect music but also the culture is well-illustrated in their hard work in organizing Blackpot Festival.
The Festival itself occurs on two stages; one in the main hall with a spacious dance floor, and the other in the church, where one can watch an assortment of smaller, more mellow acts. From zydeco to Cajun, blues, to singer songwriters (but good ones), both local and visiting, there is no shortage of exceptionally good live music on either stage over a span of approximately 15 hours. Nights inevitably end with main acts like Feufollet, the Pine Leaf Boys, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and the Red Stick Ramblers (the second of whom were thrice nominated for a Grammy).
Food was also a regular and persistent element at Blackpot. On Friday night, after watching hours and hours of all-star Cajun and oldtime jams at various campsites, I wandered over to a tented area at about 4:30am only find a magnificent gumbo being prepared by Toby, a Cajun family man in his thirties. Amid a din of revelers at this waking hour, Toby attended to his art with the focus of a chemist. By that point, Toby had been preparing the contents of his magic pot for a few hours. When I arrive, he tops his concoction with fresh green onions, and with that, a bowl of piping hot gumbo is placed in my hands. I lap it up like a starving dog. The next morning, against all odds, I had not even the slightest hangover, and I am wholly convinced that I owe this phenomenon to Toby and his gumbo.
Food also was honored in a more formal manner at Blackpot. As the name implies, black, cast-iron pots played a central role. On Saturday I woke up to about fifteen groups of people, setting up shop with black pots, gas burners, and coolers. Inside the coolers were random animals and animal parts: frogs, rabbit, pork, you name it and apparently the Cajuns will eat it. Competitors were local, and included Red Stick Rambler Blake Miller and his father. By afternoon, with Cajuns stirring and hovering over their black pots, adding a pinch of this and a handful of that, the scene looked like a witchcraft convention, but instead of ghoulish potions, the cauldrons emitted fragrances of onions and spices, and tasty dead things. Free samples of everyone's wares were handed out and a contest ensued. I chose the award-winning rabbit stew and black-eyed peas, enough calories in one plate to sustain a herd of elephants.
On Sunday, the Krewe de Alaska headed out to the Blackpot
after-party at the Lakeview Campground. Owned by Toby's family (of the 4:30am gumbo fame), the Lakeview is a campground about an hour out of Lafayette, nestled amongst tall trees surrounding a small lake. The site was dotted with (amongst other outbuildings) a few flush facilities, a large log house, and a barn. In the 1950's the 3000sq. ft. log house served as a dance hall to the surrounding parishes but now desperately requires renovation. To compensate, however, Toby converted the pole barn he built three years ago to store machinery into a veritable dance hall. The floors were bedecked with OSB laid on top of gravel. The structure itself was a combination of corrugated metal and trusses. The ceilings were high, and bedecked with windows, fans and speakers. The stage was a makeshift space on the floor with decent sound equipment. That night, we danced and waltzed our hearts out to a number of bands, including a concoction of all-stars (including Steve Riley) dubbed the Racines, and an impromptu jam of members from the Pine Leaf Boys, Feufollet, and the Red Stick Ramblers. We were fed a gumbo for the road before heading back into town. Not a bad way to end a night.
Since my move to New Orleans four months ago, my out-of-state friends and acquaintances have frequently asked me if I like it here. The answer is an affirmative one, but I've had a hard time placing my finger on exactly why. Everyone expects me to talk about the French Quarter, or the festivals, or the beignets, all of which rank high on my list of pro's, but don't quite capture what keeps me from moving to Panama like I had planned shortly before changing tack and moving to New Orleans.
What I like about living in New Orleans, about living in Louisiana, is what I like about the South. There is tradition--to a fault, in some instances, but there is a common respect for where people came from and how they became part of the local culture. There is food--that rich, flavorful, spicy kind of food that can give you either a coronary, a vivid trip to the toilet, or both, or just some good memories. And there is music--a music that is rooted in a tradition almost as old as this country, if not older. In the South, people have maintained and even revived these traditions; doing otherwise would be unthinkable.
There are strong elements of these factors all over the South, and especially in New Orleans. And, while I love my new life in New Orleans, the town of Lafayette is enigmatically dripping with Cajun in a way that drives me to return. Blackpot Festival in Lafayette is like an adrenaline rush of tradition, music, and food encapsulated in a few days. In one weekend, it's what I like about the South.