Fall in Louisiana is our most bountiful time of year for festival celebrations. Much of this has to do with seasonal factors common to other parts of the country such as harvest time, hence the Rice Festival, the Yam Festival, the Sugar Cane Festival and the Cotton Festival. And what is fall without Oktoberfest and celebratons in its honor in New Orleans, Robert's Cove, Ponchatoula, Sorrento and Gonzales. But I like to think the major reason for so many happenings is that the hot weather is finally gone and we can actually enjoy outdoor festivals once again after hiding in our air-conditioned homes.
In general, things are going along as planned -- 90 percent of the festivals are back. As can be expected, the main casualties on the festival circuit are those in St. Bernard. Although Elizabeth McDougall, the tourism director for St. Bernard Parish, says there's always a chance for an impromptu smaller revival, as of press time we will not be traveling to Violet for the Oyster Festival, Arabi for the Louisiana BBQ Festival, Chalmette for the Italian Festival or their annual Christmas bonfires. The Mensaje Spanish Festival also reports it won't be able to pulll off its volunteer-driven celebration, but in all these cases, we can always hope things will improve for next year.
Momentary losses aside, it is time for us to revel in some particularly good festivals and discover new ones. The month of October is truly remarkable for the sheer number of events. Ever since its inception, the Gretna Heritage Festival has been a local hit mostly because of its small-town feel and its music lineup. It's an odd mix of really great local talent and national acts that enjoyed widespread popularity in yesteryears. This year's line up includes Theresa Andersson, Irene Sage, Rosie Ledet, Sonny Landreth, The Charlie Daniels Band, Grand Funk Railroad, Eddie Money, Dave Mason, Johnny Winter and others. Plenty of food booths are set up around the old courthouse and there's a German Beer Garden.
Even at press time, members of the German Deutsches Haus are working furiously to renovate and paint their flooded building and they are sprinting toward the finish line in time for us to stop by for their annual Oktoberfest Celebration. We will not be denied our Chicken Dance! The usual pleasures -- German beers, bratwurst, sauerkraut and live German music -- will be offered the last Friday and Saturday in September and every Friday and Saturday through October.
Just under two hours away, the trip to Angola Prison for its annual rodeo is a "must see" at least once in your life. It's a bizarre and uniquely Louisiana event where you have the opportunity to witness inexperienced prisoners valiantly competing in various bull-riding, roping and other odd contests. There's plenty of food for sale on site and a large area where visitors can purchase a vast array of prisoner-made arts and crafts. The rodeo takes place every Sunday in October, and you may want to reserve your tickets online since the event often is sold out.
You can make a transition from the prison world to the literary world at the annual Louisiana Book Festival Oct. 28. It's only been around for a few years, but the Book Festival has grown into quite a success. Among the 100 or so authors on hand will be such luminaries as Barry Jean Ancelet, Marcelle Bienvenue, Jason Berry, Nick Spitzer, Roy Blount Jr., Ernest J. Gaines, Andrei Codrescu, Harry Shearer, Tony Dunbar and Chris Rose.
The Louisiana State Capitol is the backdrop for this event as spectators wander from tent to tent talking with authors and getting books signed. The Festival Market tent offers books by every featured author. In addition, book bags, lapel pins and posters will be available for purchase. The exhibitor tents will showcase booths of booksellers, publishers and other book- and reading-related businesses and organizations. Some food vendors and musical entertainment also are on the schedule for this cerebral day.
Every fall, people with classic wooden boats converge on the Tchefuncte River in Madisonville for the Wooden Boat Festival. They'll be back this year, and spectators can hang out on the pretty river, listen to live music and even participate in the popular Quick 'N Dirty Boat Building Contest. That contest features teams competing to build a boat with the materials provided to them in a day and a half, then taking them onto the water for the Quick 'N Dirty Boat Race on Sunday.
Celebration in the Oaks, City Park's annual lighting display, will be back Thanksgiving weekend and continue nightly Dec. 1-30. As it was in 2005, this will be a walking tour-only event, but that's fine -- the previous years' stop-and-go traffic jam with all that exhaust wasn't very joyous anyway. This year's walking tour will feature the return of a New Orleans icon: the two-story-tall Mr. Bingle, who once reigned over the season on Canal Street, will join Celebration in the Oaks.
Among the many different features of Celebration in the Oaks will be a state-of-the-art laser light show with various holiday-themed animations and music, which will be presented nightly in the Azalea Garden. The Mid-City Art Market will provide space for local artists to display and sell original art and a variety of handmade items every night.
By the time January rolls around, we can take a little breather, but only so we can blow it out for Mardi Gras, which lands on Feb. 20 in 2007. I hope that the town of Jean Lafitte, which got hit harder by Hurricane Rita than Katrina, has the energy to bring back its fun-fun-fun Oyster Scavenger Hunt. When I talked to the organizers of this event and my buddies, Roy and Dale at the Victoria Inn Bed and Breakfast (the beautiful B&B with a walkway through their tropical setting to the water), they were a little more concerned about their daily life than this way-off event, but I believe they'll pull it together.
January 2006 was to be the 50th anniversary of Cameron's Fur and Wildlife Festival, but this decimated area had to cancel the celebration. Organizers plan to have the 2007 event and are keeping their motto alive: "celebrating 50 years of fun, family, food and fur." So it will be off to southwest Louisiana for duck- and goose-calling contests, the trap-shooting contest and, of course, the ladies' and men's muskrat-skinning contest.
Peruse the list of possibilities in this guide, pick a festival, and go out and keep our culture alive.
- Julie Posner
- all in Louisiana wouldn't be the same without Deutsches Haus' Oktoberfest celebrations, featuring beer, German cuisine and, of course, the Chicken Dance.