Putting Festival Meals on the Map

New Orleans, La. –
Louisiana is full of great dishes and amazing cooks, so it's no surprise that our festival calendar is filled with celebrations that put our food on center stage.

But at this time of year, even veterans of the lush Louisiana festival circuit can feel overwhelmed by just how many food festivals crop up. This weekend alone, from Oct. 15th through 17th, there is a bonanza of festivals in towns and cities within easy driving distance for New Orleans day-trippers. Like most festivals, these feature local bands, arts and crafts, festival queens and sometimes even a small parade. But what's really special about these Louisiana festivals is the way they showcase the distinctive edible heritage of our region, the traditions and history that give Louisiana cooking so much of its flavor.

For instance, this weekend will see a number of festivals focused on the delicious byproducts of le boucherie. This is the name given to the communal events that evolved around the countryside in French-speaking south Louisiana back in the days before refrigeration, when several neighboring families would gather at one farm and share the labor and rewards of slaughtering a hog. This collective approach made the most of perishable meat back then, and the fastidious use of the entire animal led to many staples of the modern Louisiana butcher shop.

That heritage is honored this weekend in Sorrento, the River Parishes town along Airline Highway, where visitors to the annual Boucherie Festival will find cracklins, boudin, hog headcheese, pork ribs, roasted pork and pork jambalaya and gumbo alongside the tamer, more conventional carnival food. The party lasts all weekend, but Sunday is the day to see winners of the festival's cracklin and jambalaya cooking contests crowned.

And that's just the beginning. An aficionado of Louisiana meats could write an entire itinerary around the festivals on tap this weekend. In LaPlace, there's the Andouille Festival on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, while downtown Lafayette hosts its annual Boudin Cookoff, where some two dozen makers of this spicy, spreadable, rice and pork sausage compete for bragging rights while the public gets to sample the field.

Now, it's not just pork on parade this weekend. Rice, the starting point and common ground for countless Louisiana dishes, gets its due at one of the state's oldest agricultural festivals. This is the International Rice Festival, and it's held Thursday through Sunday in Crowley, a town in Acadia Parish between Lafayette and Lake Charles, where century-old Victorian architecture still stands and the rice fields stretch for golden miles all around.

Also on Sunday, things heat up at the one-day St. Martinville Pepper Festival, which, like many Louisiana festivals, benefits local charitable causes. Those with cast iron palates or simply a masochistic streak can sign up for hot pepper-eating contests, while cooler heads take in the milder eats from local restaurant vendors who set up near this historic bayou town's famous Evangeline Oak. Closer to home, the Louisiana Gumbo Festival gets going from Friday to Sunday in Chackbay, a tiny town deep in the bayou country near Thibodaux.

That's just a sample of what's on tap this particular weekend as Louisiana's incredible food festival season hits its stride.

Andouille Festival
Oct. 15-17 in LaPlace

Boudin Cookoff
Oct. 16 in Lafayette

Boucherie Festival
Oct. 15-17 in Sorrento

St. Martinville Pepper Festival
Oct. 17 in St. Martinville

International Rice Festival
Oct. 14-17 in Crowley

Louisiana Gumbo Festival
October 15-17 in Chackbay