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Beyond Funnel Cakes 

Gumbo cook-offs, boucheries and harvest festivals are among the many events honoring this state's bounty of regional food.

Louisianians are fond of thinking that we have the most festivals of any state in the nation. Actually, we fall in the middle of the pack. I can't help but think that even if we aren't at the top of the "most" list, we are indeed on top of the "best" list -- especially when it comes to the quality and variety of food. Our fests aren't garden-variety food festivals with funnel cakes and nachos. Louisiana fairs and festivals are rich with gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and alligator sauce picante. Then there are our seafood festivals, with oyster, shrimp, crab, catfish and crawfish among the offerings. Our harvest festivals -- like our harvests -- are year-round, with watermelons, strawberries, tomatoes, corn, pecans, yams and rice all wonderfully honored.

Among the foods honored by our fests are omelettes, peppers and tamales. Many, of course, have a decidedly carnivorous theme: Boucherie, Cochon de Lait, Alligator, Cracklin', Andouille and Smoked Meat. Sometimes I get a call from someone wanting to know about the Gumbo Festival and I'll respond with "which one?" We are blessed with five gumbo festivals -- plus all the individual festivals that serve up this rich stew as part of their regular menu. Years after the fact, I still fondly remember the gumbo cooked up on site at the Church Point Courir de Mardi Gras as some of the darkest, richest, most succulent chicken and andouille gumbo I've ever tasted.

Recently, I eagerly attended the Gumbo Cook-off in Crowley, and the gumbo whipped me. I thought I was ready to do my own taste testing of the 19 different gumbos served up at this January event, but I was gumboed out after merely eight bowls. Held at the satisfyingly rustic setting of the dirt-floored ag-center pavilion, the cook-off's gumbo is ready by 10:30 a.m. and Cajun bands entertain the crowds the rest of the day. Get there early to take advantage of their beer special -- only $1 between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Some of my other favorite food festivals include:

• The World Championship Crawfish Etouffee Cook-off in Eunice. During the March cook-off, close to 40 amateur and professional cooks set up decorative booths in which they cook up their variations.

• The Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge. Not surprisingly, the Crawfish Festival -- taking place this year the weekend after Jazz Fest -- has an amazing array of crawfish dishes, including boiled crawfish, fried crawfish, crawfish etouffee, crawfish dogs, crawfish jambalaya, crawfish boudin, crawfish pies, crawfish bisque and crawfish gumbo. The outstanding musical line-up features Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop bands.

• The French Food Festival in Larose. You travel down the scenic Bayou Lafourche on an October day to make it to Larose, where this local coastal community has been putting on a great food festival for more than 30 years. All food is cooked by members of local civic organizations, so each dish has that down-home touch. The local specialties include seafood gumbo, alligator sauce picante, fried shrimp, oyster po-boys, shrimp boulettes and cobblers.

• The Cracklin' Festival in Port Barre. Anytime there's a huge variety of the same dish, I feel as though I have a mission to find the best. It's all about the pig fat fried in oil at the November Cracklin' Festival in Port Barre. Cracklin's are best when eaten hot, so this is your chance to chow down on some straight-from-the-pot cracklin'. About a dozen vendors are all cooking up their versions, so it is yet another opportunity to do your own taste comparison. Just join the throngs of people wandering around with small paper bags in hand, the brown bottom bordered with a ring of grease from your bag o' fat. · The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. At this world-famous event taking place in April and May, the music might get top billing, but the food is truly unparalleled in the state and maybe the country. Sixty-six vendors are hand-selected to offer the largest variety of Louisiana and ethnic community dishes they can muster. The fare runs the gamut of gumbo, boudin, cochon de lait, fried chicken and softshell crab po-boys to tacos, sushi, spring rolls and jama-jama.

click to enlarge Sorrento's Boucherie in October is just one of many - festivals to appeal to the carnivorous appetite. - JULIE POSNER
  • Julie Posner
  • Sorrento's Boucherie in October is just one of many festivals to appeal to the carnivorous appetite.
click to enlarge The Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge has an amazing - array of crawfish dishes -- including boiled, of course. - JULIE POSNER
  • Julie Posner
  • The Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge has an amazing array of crawfish dishes -- including boiled, of course.
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