Ironclad Cooking at Louisiana's Black Pot Festival

Lafayette, LA –
As Louisiana recipes are passed down through the generations, it's common for them to acquire family stories and lore. The same thing sometimes happens to cookware, especially the seasoned cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens in which we cook our gumbos, stews and jambalayas.

Those prized vessels of family cooking are star players at a festival scheduled this weekend in Lafayette. It's called the South Louisiana Black Pot Festival & Cookoff. And, in addition to a weekend of Cajun music, zydeco and other roots sounds, it showcases the heritage and tradition wrapped up in these humble but eminently durable and long-lasting iron kitchen essentials.

The Black Pot Festival is the brainchild of members from the band the Red Stick Ramblers and their friend, Jillian Johnson, singer and ukulele player for the band the Figs. The festival turns four this year, and it's still quite small and intimate. Many musicians and festival attendees alike camp on the grounds, and together create an after-hours party of impromptu jam sessions around their campfires long after the scheduled performances wrap up. The following morning, cook-off contestants break out the black pots and start prepping their dishes outdoors under tailgating tents.

A bit of mystique and mythology has grown up around this long-lived cookware. One popular story around the Cajun prairie holds that when the British military expelled French-speaking Acadians from Canada beginning in 1755, the family black pot was the one thing these exiles were sure to take, even packing other belongings inside like travel trunks. They didn't know where they would end up, the story goes, but if they had their black pots at least they knew they would be able to cook when they got there. Those who found their way to Louisiana eventually evolved one of America's great regional cuisines, and black pots have been a centerpiece from the start.

So much Louisiana home cooking literally begins in well-seasoned black cast iron, but these pots are more than mere kitchen tools. Some people describe receiving their own black pot as a rite of passage. Parents often hand them down as their sons and daughters begin having their own children and need to cook big meals for growing families. They are also an integral part of camping and hunting trips, where they have come to be regarded as the portable hearth, a focal point around which friends gather. When there's good times and good cooking, for many south Louisiana families the black pot is usually nearby.

The Black Pot Festival & Cookoff honors that role. It also gives some serious home cooks a chance to show off their best recipes and, in the process, provides the festival with an outrageous bounty of good eating as contestants dish out generous samples to the crowd. Some highlights from last year's competition included a burgundy-dark gumbo with hen and smoked turkey necks, venison tenderloin in a rich fricassee, spicy turtle and alligator sauce piquante, stewed rabbit legs on the bone, over purple hull peas and deer sausage, and jambalayas deeply imbued with smokehouse flavor. The cook-off judges do not have an easy task, but festival guests eating their way through the field of entries may feel they are the biggest winners.

The South Louisiana Black Pot Festival & Cookoff for 2009 begins Oct. 30. The cook off begins the afternoon of Oct. 31.