Two seemingly rival industries — shrimping and oil — co-headline St. Mary Parish's biggest event of the year, and Morgan City is the host. In light of BP's Gulf oil disaster — gushing oil from a mile below the sea and strangling fishing industries — the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival is a paradox. But the parish usually thrives because of both industries, and in Morgan City, that marriage is celebrated. There is little to no anger directed toward BP and fellow industries by those who attend the Morgan City festival. (In fact, BP's name and trademark logo are attached to a sign above a children's play area.) Instead, anger is directed at President Barack Obama, who authorized a deepwater drilling moratorium during the summer, potentially threatening local jobs and revenue.
This may have been the festival's best year yet. Festival organizers estimate about 125,000 people visited Morgan City over the Labor Day weekend. "It's mind-boggling," says Lee Darce, assistant festival director and vendor chairwoman. "Add an exclamation point."
It's raining on the festival's final day, Monday, Sept. 6, Labor Day. Festival director Lee Delaune sits in his office at the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival building at 715 Second St., waiting for the rain to slacken, and then he'll grab his straw hat and something from the Jolly Trolley.
"They still here?" Delaune asks Darce. "What they sell?"
"Baked potatoes, barbecue brisket," she says.
"I might have to do that, just to get away from seafood," Delaune says, laughing.
It's Delaune's fourth year as festival director, and he says this is the best one since he took office, and may be the best one yet.
Despite the devastating oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico and its numerous detriments — even after the well was capped — BP and the oil disaster aren't on anyone's lips. Instead, it's petroleum and seafood. Lots of it. Even in the months following the disaster attacking the Gulf Coast, when every politician and business outpaces the next by trying to distance themselves from BP and Big Oil, Morgan City is giving BP and the industry a public, five-day-long high five in front of thousands of visitors.
In fact, the oil disaster didn't even cause a hiccup in the festival's arrangements, even as organizers planned for the monumental 75th anniversary. There was no question the event would be held this year. (Billboards on Highway 90 read, "Yes, We Are Having" with a festival logo underneath.) The biggest hurdle, Delaune says, was deciding whether to construct a second stage for musicians. (He opted for just one.)
BP coincidentally was one of this year's sponsors, providing the festival with $5,000 and a children's play area. If anything, organizers are happy the well is capped and shrimpers are able to supply crustaceans to the festival, which pays tribute to St. Mary Parish and offers a distraction from lost jobs and a long, painful summer. The parish has a population of 50,000, and many of its residents work in the headlining industries.
Media flocked to the event ("We all know it's from the spill," Darce says), which usually draws thousands of visitors with little press outside of the The Daily Review of Morgan City, The Tri-Parish Times in Houma and maybe The Times-Picayune. Darce says the media wanted to know, "How you can celebrate the two (industries)," especially in the wake of the oil disaster?
"I think they got it," she says. "We celebrate the workers — the people who support and participate in both industries. It's the fabric of our community, our area. It's just the way we are. And let me tell you, they did pass a good time."
Morgan City held the inaugural festival in 1936, but it wasn't much of a fete but rather an impromptu street parade celebrating the arrival of the first shrimp harvest of the season. Dock workers, shrimpers and alligator trappers partied in the streets. The tradition continued until 1967, when the oil industry, now an economic behemoth for the region, implanted itself, thus dubbing the event the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. The state continues to honor the anniversary from the first event, making it the oldest harvest festival in Louisiana.
Celebrating its 150th year, the city produced the first offshore oilrig in the '40s and honors the groundbreaking discovery by displaying it on the neutral ground of Brashear Avenue, a main thoroughfare bordering its historic downtown district. The city has a sense of humor — there's a Blowout Lounge in its downtown, and the festival's logo is a hard hat-wearing shrimp climbing an offshore oil rig.
The festival's main event is the blessing of the fleet. On Sunday, Sept. 5, a boat procession paraded Berwick Bay, with Holy Cross Catholic Church's Rev. Danny Poche performing the 75th annual blessing. This year's theme was "Honoring Our Hometown Heritage," the Marine Corps Marching Band performed "The Star Spangled Banner" and the Air Force National Guard flew over the procession.
From the bow of the Lil' Wilson, this year's Shrimp and Petroleum Queen Lani Marie Bergeron toasted the king, Al Adams III, from the Miss Vickie.
The festival stretches just a few blocks, from Lawrence Square Park to the Highway 90 overpass. In the park, the Kiwanis Club sells daiquiris, Mount Zion Baptist Church sells fried fish, and the Louisiana Lottery offers tourist information. Under the overpass, hundreds swarm carnival rides, some breaching the lip of the bridge above them. In the food area, the sounds and smells of sizzling grills and bubbling fryers accompany giant placards for hamburgers, blooming onions, chicken on a stick and shrimp served every way: in cakes, wrapped in bacon and stuffed in po-boys.
Morgan City's Cafe Jo Jo's opened in 2002, but this is its first year as a vendor at the festival. "The turnout was incredible, weather was beautiful, I couldn't have asked for more," says owner Brian Blanchard. Karen Thompson of Karen and Greg's Pistolettes from College Station, Texas, was invited to the festival and sells shrimp remoulade-stuffed pistolettes. "Everything was wonderful," she says after dusting powdered sugar on a honey-stuffed pistolette.
Grilled sausage segues to scented homemade candles and cypress rocking chairs, wooden cars, and guns that shoot rubber bands. But at the end of the overpass, Oceaneering displays a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) used on the sea floor to monitor the oil leak at the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig.
"That created a magnitude of interest for everybody," Delaune says. "They didn't sell anything, they just gave information. They want to come back. That'll give the oil industry some more representation. People are interested."
Delaune says he's not sure how he'll outdo this year's festival for the 2011 event. But he's certain of one thing: "Oh, I'll get that second band stage. It will happen."
As Highway 90 leads out of Morgan City, passing BP headquarters, there are billboards for offshore injury attorney Patrick Yancey, International Construction Group and International Marine. They're hiring, the signs read, with text superimposed above an image of an offshore oil rig.