New Orleans, La. –
If you find yourself at a festival this weekend that features an orange peeling contest one day and a shrimp peeling contest the next, you know you must be in Plaquemines Parish. Specifically, that would be the Plaquemines Parish Fair and Orange Festival, where locals gather to party and to celebrate the harvests of this exceptionally productive parish.
This long, narrow, coastal parish stretches from the outer suburbs of New Orleans down both banks of the Mississippi river to its outlet at the Gulf, and it's home to some of the world's most prolific fisheries. By comparison, the citrus harvest in Plaquemines is a much smaller affair, but it's one of those distinctive facets of Louisiana food culture that is hard-wired to local tastes and intimately tied to our sense of the season.
The Orange Festival is held Dec. 3-5 at historic Fort Jackson in the river town of Buras about 60 miles downstream from New Orleans. There will be citrus tasting booths and displays, citrus dessert contests, citrus-eating contests and, as mentioned before, a contest for the longest and most unusual decorative peels people can craft from a single orange. Just getting to the fair grounds at Buras at this time of year, however, proves it's own primer on Louisiana citrus. Travel down Highway 23, the two-lane road that shadows the Mississippi here, and you'll see the citrus groves stretching back toward the levee.
Cooler temperatures cause the citrus to ripen, so as the season progresses the groves are denuded and the pickup trucks, roadside farm stands and farmers market booths fill up with sacks of the green and orange, vitamin-packed fruit. There are navel oranges, and satsumas, ruby red grapefruit, Meyer lemons, Louisiana sweets, mandarins and kumquats.
Local chefs use this stuff prolifically during the season, from salad garnishes to sauces for seafood dishes to citrus-spiked desserts. But eating them directly from hand is great pleasure too, and in this role the local satsuma fits best. In some circles satsumas are known as the "kid-glove citrus" or "zipper-skin citrus" since their loose-fitting skins are so easy to peel.
A handful of other Louisiana parishes grow citrus too, but Plaquemines has the lion's share. Most of these farms are small-scale operations, and that represents the local citrus industry as a whole. The Louisiana harvest can't hope to compete in volume or monetary value with the nation's more famous orange-growing states. The crop here is tiny compared with Florida and California, for instance. But for local consumers, these limitations are part of their virtue, and certainly part of their distinctive character.
Because the Louisiana crop doesn't play much of a role in the national market, most of it is sold, and eaten, close to home. It's a heritage crop, one full of the promise of freshness. The simple premise, once seemingly forgotten, now roaring back to vogue, holds that the closer to the source you buy your produce, the riper it should have been when picked. So it goes with Creole tomatoes, so it also goes with Louisiana citrus.
Whether you visit the Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival this weekend or just stop at a farm stand or farmers market, you can pick up these sweet, colorful signs of the season by the sack.
The 2010 Plaquemines Parish Fair and Orange Festival is held Dec. 3-5 in Buras.