Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Once and future Queen of Queens?

The new Frog Queen at left, a 20 year-old named Chelsea who was so shy as a child that she wouldn't speak to her own Aunts, has represented her town before, as Frog Derby queen and Miss Rayne (a title that includes a job with the mayor), but on the night of this pageant she was sure she had lost this title, the one she wanted most. As Frog Queen, she will represent the town at festivals statewide (including Rice, Cattle, and Fur, to name a few), and preside over events year-round in Rayne, where she was born and raised. She'll go to Washington DC with a Louisiana Mardi Gras delegation and then attend the Queen of Queens convention, where 84 festival titleholders have a queen-off that will extend one girl's travel and excitement by another year. At right, Brandi--the naturally outgoing and down-to-earth Tamale Queen of the town of Zwolle--is the current (and very popular) Queen of Queens. Chelsea would love to fill her shoes, but she's up against history: no Frog Queen has ever won. Will this be the year? I'll be following her over the next few months to find out.

Small Town Superheroes

When some of the girls stumbled in their answers, they had an ample safety net: Mayor Jim (call him Jimbo) Petitjean is a born ringmaster and comedian. He milked laughs out of even the deadliest story onstage and kept the girls from collapsing in nervous heaps. His partner in crime at the crowning was Cheryl McCarty, the Cultural Director and go-to person for, well, everything in this town of 8,600. Think Sonny and Cher on steroids and you have a sense of the natural rapport and sense of humor this duo brings not only to the pageant but to town affairs, and how that contributes the town's ability to keep on looking upward even as the nation's economy heads the other direction.

In the Know

The Louisiana Association of Fairs & Festival is by far the most organized festival system in the nation, with small towns and industries all over the state really supported by these events. Their ambassadors are their queens, who go to other festivals and festival pageants all year, showing their support and encouraging people from other towns to visit theirs. For the most part unlike the catty claw-filled stereotype of the pageant circuits shown in movies and on tv, these girls often speak of a sisterhood and camaraderie to their shared experience. 105 of them came to see the Frog Queen crowned. At left, an 18-inch tiara was the tallest crown of the night. At right, a sea of queens, fronted by Strawberry (looking a bit put out) and Catfish (having a better time).

Root root root for the home team

With several hundred enthusiastic locals, I attended the dual Teen and Miss Frog pageants. There were plenty of Mamarazzi (a term coined by the outgoing Teen queen) on hand to capture the moment and various contestants' supporters made themselves known throughout the night. The girls in the bottom right were a tough crowd--their faces made it perfectly clear when they thought a contestant was full of it.

Where the Frog Royalty Reign Supreme

In Rayne, there are frog titles literally "from zero to the grave," in the words of Cultural Director Cheryl McCarty (a human dynamo of volunteerism). Most of the titles are sponsored by civic organizations, who then raise money for their local programs from the related entry fees, pageant ticket sales, and the sale of what I call frogabilia. The Jaycees sponsor Mr. & Miss Tadpole (kids under 6) and Deb Frog Queen (for tweens). Early teens vie for Junior Frog Queen and girls under 17 aim for Teen Frog Queen, sponsored by a local civic sorority that also sponsors the Miss Frog Queen, the title with the most cache. The Lyons sponsor the frog-dressing Frog Derby Queen and the Frog Jockey Queen. At the top of the age spectrum, the senior citizen Golden Frogs include both a King and a Queen. The only title sponsored by a private business is Ms. Queen, but that representative also does good work; the new Ms. Frog, Summer Parker (a former Queen of Queens) has immersed herself in Rayne activities and charities since her win.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

All kinds of traffic

Some things I expected: the frog crossing sign was no surprise in a town of frog murals, scultptures, fountains, and queens. But some things I did not expect: for instance, the drive-through cigarettes-and-booze store took me by surprise. But drive-through venues--there's a drive-through grocery store, for instance--are nearly as ubiquitous as frog decorations. For someone like me, coming from a state founded by Puritans, the apex of this trend is the popularity of drive-through Daquiri bars. Note: Your straw is handed to you separately because no one would want to encourage drinking and driving.

A Taste of Cajun Country

I landed in Lafayette, Louisiana on the morning of the day-long Frog royalty pageants. A quick ride through the Acadian prairie along Interstate 10 led me to tiny Rayne, where I found plentiful evidence of frog love everywhere--including on the plate. I ate lunch at Gabe's, a family-owned place where the line of cars for the drive-through never ends. Blake, one of Gabe's grown children, runs the place and told me he was sad that there are no places in the US processing local frogs in volume anymore. The fat legs I was enjoying were from China. But each June, when frog season starts up, Gabe and his family go frogging to catch--and cook--the local specimens for which Rayne is famous.