"My imagination starts going as I'm headed to a food festival," says Julie Posner, who produces Huli's Louisiana Festivals and Events calendar (www.louisiana-festivals..com). One of the best parts of food festivals is driving to the small towns that host them, she says.
Festival frequenters like Posner take a road-warrior approach to their journeys, stretching across the state via back roads to reach the most distant and out-of-the-way destinations.
Celebrated foods range from the latest harvest staple to bizarre local meats-of-choice. Small-town food obsessions can go way beyond just eating. Food worship sometimes includes decorating, parades and beauty pageants, too. Everyone brave enough to venture outside the city limits will taste other towns' food obsessions, be it cracklin or duck.
The Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival (April 13-15) is a short jaunt away, a perfect trip for uninitiated food travelers. But there's no easing into festival routine in Ponchatoula, where strawberries aren't just a symbolic theme. Here, people wear strawberry-dotted clothing, play strawberry bingo and eat a whole lot of strawberry food. Guests may think that overindulging on berries is perfectly healthy compared to most food-festival fare, but strawberry ice cream, shortcake and the new fried berry are sure to derail any diet.
"People were going crazy," says Strawberry Festival President Amy Harris on the introduction of the fried treat. "We fry [the berries] in pancake batter and dust them with powdered sugar. Everyone was raving."
Fried foods always make great festival fare, but in the category of health-challenged edibles, even battered strawberries pale in comparison to Cutoff's offering -- cracklin'. The Cracklin' Cookoff (April 14) may not draw crowds of contestants, but only a few cooks are needed to offer guests plenty of grease-soaked fried pig skins to chew on. "Cracklin's taste the best when they're warm, before they start congealing," Posner says, so Cutoff's pig-skin samples promise to be better than any grocery store bag of pork rinds.
Breaux Bridge's Crawfish Festival (May 4-6) manages to satisfy protein cravings without pork skin. They may not be fried, but the pounds of crawfish stuffed in contestants' mouths during festival eating contests are certainly as conducive to heartburn as some Cuttoff cracklin'. Intense eating competitions are 45 minutes long, and the record consumption tops 50 pounds of crawfish.
For travelers who wish to pass on gluttonous eating of themed food, Blanchard's Poke Salad Festival (May 10-12) is perfect. There is no poke salad on festival grounds, however. Pokeweed, the celebration's namesake plant, does grow in nearby cow pastures, but since the local pokeweed cannery closed, vendors don't have any poke salad to sell. Nevertheless, poke salad will be honored in the festival's grand parade, themed "Poke More Fun," and, since fried food equals a great festival, plenty of carnival-style dishes will be available.
Another stop for carnivores, Ville Platte's Le Festivale de la Viande Boucanee (Smoked Meat Festival, June 22-23) cooks up all kinds of meat in the mid-summer heat. Established by the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, the festival honors veterans on opening night with bagpipes and a flyover. For the rest of the weekend, however, patriotism takes the back burner to glorifying meat. Viande Boucanee reigns over the festivities, including the very serious World Championship Smoked Meat Cookoff. Backyard grillers are welcome in the amateur division, but the meat competition really heats up in the professional smoking division, which includes chefs and other seasoned pros. Any meat is fair game for smoking, from tasso to venison and even fish.
Summer seems to be the time for meat lovers in Louisiana. For travelers whose cholesterol levels aren't high enough after the Smoked Meat Festival, Gueydon's Duck Festival (Aug. 23-26) features another meat-cooking contest. There are no rules about what to cook, but most contestants stay true to the theme and prepare duck. Besides the cooking contest, the Duck Festival's main attraction is its duck-calling contest. The meat-calling division is fun for locals, but serious duck callers enter the state-calling division, whose winner moves onto Stuttgart, Arkansas' World Championship Duck Calling Competition. According to festival president Ronnie Lougan, the state-calling technique mimics Arkansas ducks' sounds, so competitors really have no hope of calling any Louisiana ducks.
The competition gets a bit more intangible, however, at the Yam-I-Mals portion of Opelousas' Yambilee (Oct. 25-28). Strangely shaped yams are prized by contestants of all ages, from preschoolers to senior citizens. Best Yam-I-Mal goes to the entry that most resembles a creature without cutting the original sweet potato. But yams aren't just fun to play with, as Yambilee cooking contestants well know. The Cooked Yam Contest has 10 divisions, from yam pone to yam bread, with a $25 prize for each lucky winner. After a summer spent gorging on fried food and animal products, creature-shaped sweet potatoes and a cooking contest devoid of meat are the perfect prescription for any traveler to get back in shape for another hungry season.