by Ian McNulty
This is an extremely busy time for festivals around south Louisiana. While Jazz Fest tends to draw most of the oxygen from the room, each of the next two weekends brings the biggest festivals of the year to a pair of Cajun country towns: the Festival International de Louisiane this weekend in Lafayette and the Crawfish Festival next weekend in neighboring Breaux Bridge.
If these events didn’t coincide with Jazz Fest, it would be a no-brainer for New Orleans people who like Louisiana music, food and festival scenes to pack up for quick road trips over the Atchafalaya to attend. As the schedules stand today, it’s still possible to do both Jazz Fest at home and these Acadiana festivals over different days if you can make compromises and plan your time right.
It might seem like crazy talk to hit the road just as the big show is happening right in our backyard at Jazz Fest, but these other festivals do have a special appeal, particularly in the food department.
International in Acadiana
Festival International features musicians from around the globe and has an emphasis on performers from the Francophone world. Admission is free and the outdoor stages are arrayed around Lafayette’s small but genuinely labyrinthine downtown business district. If you remember the French Quarter Festival from a decade or so ago — when it was smaller – you’ll recognize the vibe around the streets at Festival International.
Food booths are all over the place, with most of them provisioned by local restaurants and caterers. The offerings are pretty diverse – you can get falafel from one booth and Indian curries from another – though they don’t have the same unifying quality control and selectivity of the Jazz Fest food operation (hot dogs and pizza are part of the program). But the emphasis is really on Cajun-style festival foods, and this is great stuff. There’s a lot of boudin, many variations on crawfish etouffee, cross-cultural dishes like blackened crawfish and shrimp tamales and something intriguing called “pork popcorn,” which I’ve yet to experience. Make sure you hit the booth from Poupart’s Bakery, that Lafayette institution, for crawfish pistolettes and shrimp and tasso pasta. The Lafayette spinoff of New Orleans’ own Cochon restaurant will be there this year too, serving smoked brisket or pulled pork sandwiches and shrimp and grits.
Festival International de Louisiana is April 25-29 in downtown Lafayette. Admission is free. For directions and schedules, click here.
Next weekend, the home stretch for Jazz Fest in New Orleans means it’s also time for the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. The action happens in gated festival grounds just outside the historic center of this pretty bayou town. There are three music stages for a schedule of 30 performers, mainly in the Cajun, zydeco and swamp pop genres, there's a small truck float-style parade, festival queens and a carnival midway.
These are the usual trappings of a small-town Louisiana festival, but it’s the food focus – and the particular mania for crawfish – that gives it so much of its personality. Measured per capita, Breaux Bridge has to be one of the eating-est towns in Louisiana, and its civic identity is conspicuously tied up with crawfish, which are harvested in such super abundance from rice fields in the surrounding countryside. The Crawfish Festival comes along at the traditional peak of the season and celebrates the harvest in all its red glory.
Crawfish dishes are done dozens of different ways by vendors ranging from local restaurants and caterers to one lady who hawks hot lunches to workers at nearby sugar mills. Again, not everything is as carefully selected as the food program at Jazz Fest, but the vendors here do get plenty creative. There’s a crawfish, shrimp and eggplant jambalaya topped with a crab patty, for instance, and a huge bowl of crab and shrimp etouffee over “atomic potatoes,” sort of a spicy, garlicky potato salad (see photo at the top of this post).
My favorite foods here, though, came from the etouffee cook-off, which is held on Sunday. Teams of friends and family enter the competition and once the judges get their samples the teams start dishing out portions for the crowd. Most are offered free, some for small donations to help a kids’ cause, in the manner of lemonade stands. In this way, you get to sample a delicious range of customized, competition-driven variations on this iconic Cajun dish. Tastings start around noon on the Sunday of the festival, May 6 this year.
To wash it all down, beer booths around the grounds pour tall, very cold drafts of locally-made brews for refreshingly low prices.
The Crawfish Festival is May 4-6. Admission is $5 on Friday and Sunday and $10 on Saturday. For details and schedules, click here.