Where Y'Eat: When Cajun Cooks Compete

Oct 25, 2012

Two food-focused festivals tempt road trips with bayou-style "French" dishes and Cajun cast iron cooking.

Cracklin's and jack-o'-lanterns at the French Food Festival.
Credit Ian McNulty

There are a lot of high profile cooking contests out there these days, all over cable TV in particular. They have celebrity chefs, celebrity judges, fancy, gleaming kitchen sets and over-the-top cooking challenges that you shouldn’t try at home, and probably never would want to anyway. But I’ve always found that when it comes to really good, truly inspirational competitive cooking, you can’t beat a Louisiana festival where local families break out their own treasured recipes.

Two examples are coming up this weekend in south Louisiana. And, even though this is a busy time in New Orleans, the allure of the eats that each offers should be enough to tempt a quick road trip. 

One is the French Food Festival, held in Larose, a small, hard-working, fishing and oil town in Lafourche Parish, about an hour’s drive from New Orleans. Don’t let the festival name fool you. The French food here is really Cajun home cooking, blown up in scale for a festival that draws thousands of people to the Larose Regional Park & Civic Center all weekend long and late into the night. There are carnival rides, a craft market, festival queens and the other trappings of a small town fair. But the main event is inside the pavilion, a big structure the size of a circus tent with a music stage at one end and food booths lining the flanks.

Families and various community groups sponsor these booths, which are all elaborately decorated with fishing nets and giant crawfish figures, and each features a few specialty dishes. Some standouts for me last year were a sack of fried crab claws that I tossed into my mouth like popcorn, shrimp boulettes, or fried croquettes of chopped shrimp, and a bayou dish called routee, which is like pork grillades with peppery gravy. Go early enough and you might even score a tarte a la bouille, a type of custard pie rarely seen outside the Bayou Lafourche area. 

The second event I’m recommending this weekend is a little farther away, but possibly even more delicious. It’s the South Louisiana Black Pot Festival & Cookoff, a small, upstart music and food festival held in Lafayette and organized by a group of young roots-rock, Cajun and zydeco musicians. In addition to a weekend of music, it showcases the heritage and tradition wrapped up in the black pot, those well-seasoned, cast iron vessels where so much Louisiana home cooking literally begins.

Teams break out their black pots on Saturday, cooking for the judges and providing generous samples to the crowd. We’re talking about burgundy-dark gumbo with hen and smoked turkey necks, venison tenderloin in a rich fricassee, spicy turtle and alligator sauce piquante, and jambalayas deeply imbued with smokehouse flavor.

The bounty of hunting trips, the neighbor’s fishing dock connections, the age-old family recipes, and just the camaraderie and competitive vigor of Louisiana people spending a day cooking outside — all of this will be brought to bear this weekend at the French Food Festival and the Black Pot Festival. Along the way, it all proves that when Louisiana cooks compete, whether it’s for prizes or just for pride, you, the taster at the other end of the bowl, are always the winner.

French Food Festival

Oct. 25-28
307 East 5th St., Larose

Black Pot Festival

Oct. 26-27
Downtown Lafayette, La.