Monday, October 27, 2008

"A Yam Good Time"

That's one of Yambilee's slogans and it delivered. As the Yam King and Queen headed off into their reign, I headed back to Boston. Thank you, Opelousas.

Dress for Less?

Not this particular crew, obviously.

A warmer welcome

Some years, the visiting queens have not been well-received by the crowd at Yambilee, but this year their reception was very positive, in part thanks to the presence of Miss Acadiana, an Opelousas native and the lone woman of color on the float.

Smile and wave

The Visiting Queens, surrounded by yam crates and sweet potato sacks, rolled down West Landry to Main Street in Opelousas, waving to crowds and enduring hollered requests for them to throw something—anything!—but also enjoyed shouts of thanks for coming to Opelousas to celebrate.

Halloween came early

Along the route, children brought their candy buckets to fill with goodies thrown from the floats. Note the disbelief of the boy at the far right when he realizes the Visiting Queens have no candy--it's like the universe simply doesn't make sense.


Chelsea Troxler, the Sugar Queen, knows her industry cold, letting fly with facts and figures (the Sugar industry brings Louisiana 1.7 billions dollars a year), and pointing out that no matter which carbonated beverage you pull out of the cooler, you’re getting high fructose corn syrup or a chemical sweetener and not sugar--and she's happy to call you on it!

Team Spirit

The Celtic Nations, Spice, and St. Charles queens boarded a float for the Grand Louisiyam Parade and, while waiting in the hot sun for the parade to start, shared their thoughts about the Rhinestone Sisterhood that they are a part of and how a title begins to shape a queen's identity, for at least that year. St. Charles Parish Queen Aimee (right) says that she found herself suddenly obsessed with crowns and now sees them everywhere. Celtic Nations Queen Winter (left) finds herself constantly looking for green and gold items, while Spice Queen Mariah (center) says in her life it’s now “everything peppers all the time."

12 years in the making

Before the parade kicked off, 17 year-old Nonnie Berard (among the youngest queens in the festival system) told me that she ran for Crawfish Queen as soon as she was eligible because it is just about the greatest honor a young girl can have in her hometown of Breaux Bridge. At age 5, she decided she would someday be the queen and she won on her first try. She has no intention of running for any other title because, “I’ve seen girls who compete every weekend for a new title, but I couldn’t do that. I can’t imagine going for a title I didn’t grow up dreaming of. Once I’ve been Crawfish, I’ve lived the dream—why take some other local girl’s dream from her? I wouldn’t feel right.”

Just a closer walk--and dance

Among the troupes readying for the parade were the PJ’s Dance Studio "Praise Dancers for God." Based in Lafayette, they ranged in age from 3 years old to 16. The oldest dancer, Jasmine Evans (back row center) has been with the troupe for 10 years, including three times dancing at Yambilee. When asked to name their favorite festival, it was a tie between Yambilee and Rice, but they all agree that what they love about both parades is how many more people get to see their hard work.

Shop local

Billy’s and Ray’s, just off the start of the parade route, does a hopping business on Yambilee day, with fresh cracklins and boudin being made and served as fast as the three women at the stove can keep up. I couldn't resist another try at cracklins, but, somewhat illogically, got a Diet Coke to go with my deep-fried pork skin.

All creatures great and small

At the Yambilee carnival, something large kept hitting my head or back or neck and then disappearing. Eventually, a local fairgoer noticed that I was approaching a kind of madness trying to figure out what was going on and he kindly pointed out the culprits: flying grasshoppers the length of your index finger (bottom photo). I was a little less freaked out by the other beast (see top) that caught my attention: Louisiana alligator, served—as are all things at a fair--on a stick. (And yes, it does taste like chicken, only, um, chewy. Really chewy.)

Voices from the Midway

Curley Richard, 12 (the taller of the two boys in the photo bottom left), and his brother Jeremy Carroll, 11, were born and raised in Opelousas, and come to Yambilee every year. They like the parade best and the carnival second best. Curley explained, “It’s the place to talk to girls. I like girls.” Joe Miller, 74 (bottom right), is the retired owner of a carnival company and he likes to check out other carnivals in his free time; he prefers the Delcambre Shrimp and Erath 4th of July festivals to Yambilee, but this festival was still a homecoming: he was excited to visit with Yambilee King Lloyd Price, with whom Joe had served in the Army and hadn’t seen in the half century since.

Red state, blue state, green state

You can buy Freedom Fries or win Che Guevara in a midway game. Whatever your politics, at the carnival, someone will be glad to help you part with your cash .

The Waltons would blush

What you don’t expect in small town America is this: the Ya Ya’s. This self-styled group of Sweet Potato Queens, including a drag queen, not only attended all the Yambilee events but were introduced from the stage of the carnival midway and also rode in the parade. (My regrets to the three more Ya Ya's not pictured, including the twin of the one in pink.)

You can be Queen Mother without a Hat and Gloves

Forget what you hear about Pageant Mothers—most of the festival moms are ordinary, hardworking parents, who support their daughters in their volunteerism but don’t push them into the spotlight. The shallow, pageant-obsessed mothers (seen in movies and on TV) are the exception, not the rule, and when you do meet them in this context, they stand out pretty nakedly with their emphasis on shoes and clothes and the perks of travel. In contrast, the new Yambilee Queen’s mom seen here talked excitedly about her daughter’s community work in past titles such as Forest Queen and Swamp Pop Queen.

Progress and Pride

In a town where racial tension has often simmered near the surface, the selection of this year’s Yam King, Lloyd Price, was a big moment: the R&B artist and now sweet-potato product entrepreneur is the first African-American Yambilee King in the 63 years of the festival’s history. Among his most famous songs, Price penned “Personality,” which might well describe the attributes of the young woman on his arm, 19 year-old Meghin Frazier, the new Yambilee Queen.
Walk, personality
Talk, Personality
Smile, Personality
Charm, personality...

Magic Wand

These queens wield modern powers to pass the time during long ceremonies.

Try this on for size

The official regalia often outpaces the wearer. Frog Queen Chelsea, at 5’1 and under 100 lbs, is faced with the task of walking in an enormous mantle followed by a ten-foot-long train that has a heavy velvet layer on top. Her first attempt to walk in the outfit (at the Rice Ball) involved the train getting wrapped around the honor guard, but this time, at Yambilee, everything went smoothly. Queen Kristen of Cattle was not so lucky—her train snagged onstage as she exited and the stagehand equivalent of a lady-in-waiting had to free her. The process is made harder because festival norm is to wear clear shoes with enormous heels (which, as one queen noted, are easiest to find in a place catering to slightly different clientele).

Grunge Factor

There’s a lot of hurry up and wait in festival queen life and little of it is glamorous. Note the chicken wire and plywood, upon which a mirror has thoughtfully been fixed for them as they wait in a tiny room to play their parts in the evening's pageantry. The worlds they travel in are largely agricultural and industrial--they bring the sparkle themselves.

Can you handle this?

Getting into the official regalia often takes the help of others, as shown here with outgoing Yam queen, Lindsey Cooper. But that was the least of the challenges for Lindsey, who has set the bar high for her successor. Determined to make the Yambilee festival integral to the Yam industry in a way it had not been in recent years, she attended Yam commission meetings, agricultural board meetings, and statewide industry events. To her, that defines being a good queen more than all the trips to other fairs. “It’s not about getting to Our Lady of the Charm Bracelet Festival," she jokes pointedly. "It’s about honoring your industry and making a difference.”

Two ways of being a queen

People who don’t know festival queens
often mistake them for beauty queens,
but the pageant worlds are very distinct.
While festival queens often talk about
sisterhood and make close friends from
their travels—like Cattle Queen Kristin
and Hot Sauce queen Lail, shown relaxing
between events—those who compete in the
circuit pageants have a whole different take.
The emcee of the Yambilee luncheon was
Yuwa Vosper, Miss Acadiana, who
represents 23 parishes at once and is a
competitor for Miss Louisiana this weekend.
She was once a festival queen (Catfish) and
though she appreciates the camaraderie of
the festival queens, she says she is now
ready for the different ethos of the circuit
pageants. She sees festival queens more as
doing community service, while circuit
pageants are a competitive sport—for
which she’s more than ready. As she
put it, “I like competition. I’m not going
there to make friends. It’s headphones
and flashcards until it’s time to go on.”

Like Day and Night

By day, these girls are all students, currently deep in the throes of college midterms. While her fellow queens relaxed by the pool of the Yambilee President at a special afternoon gathering before the coronation, Lauren Naquin, Fur Queen, managed to squeeze in a couple hours of work, looking every bit the college kid in sweatshirt and clutching notes. But come the evening, like Clark Kent emerging from an especially glam phone booth, she was transformed into a queen, with fur sash, sequined mantle, rhinestone crown and velvet cape. Lauren is about to be a queen for a second year running: her parish, still rebuilding from Rita, was wiped out by Ike, and her festival was cancelled. They have asked her to continue her reign as the parish looks at the future.

Cajun Wind Chime

Nuff said.

Suitcase of dreams

The stage area of any festival event always looks briefly like a baggage claim at an airport. The girls can’t travel light: they carry not only crown boxes but enormous suitcases that house their mantles, the tall—and often heavy—fans that rise over their outfits. For the smaller girls, trying to walk in a mantle and crown that together might weigh 10-15 pounds is a huge challenge.

They know what they're doing

The incoming contestants were excluded from the burlap whimsy and instead were attired in outfits more suitable to 1945, the first year the pageant was held. In their suits, heels, and church hats, they are clearly dressed to impress—and they are used to it: between these 8 girls, they represent 10 past festival queen titles.

America's Next Top Potato Sack Model

Before the queens paraded as a group in their burlapwear, each queen introduced herself. Duck flapped her “wings” and made sure the feathers around her neck got a good ruffling. The leader of the pack, Cotton, won the prize for best burlap attire--a prize she probably never imagined existed.

Sack it to 'em

Yambilee invites Visiting Royals from other festivals to a Queen’s Luncheon, where the outgoing Yambilee Queen is honored and her would-be successors are introduced. To recognize the Yam industry, the Visiting Queens are asked to make burlap sack outfits that reflect their own festival themes. The Delcambre Shrimp, Strawberry, and Cotton queens show their stuff. (Strawberry, too often called Watermelon this day, would like you to know that Watermelon seeds are black.)

Rich history, Lean times

At the center of town, on a small green next to the farmer’s market, a cluster of traditional Cajun homes offer a glimpse into the past. This is the home of Venus, a Creole free woman of color who lived on the Cajun prairie before the abolition of slavery. Made of bousillage, a mixture of mud and moss, it is estimated to have been built around 1800, and is a source of community pride. Pride in tradition and history keep Opelousas going during difficult times: it is one of the poorest towns in the state’s poorest parish, its economic burdens substantially increased in the aftermath of both Katrina and Rita. According to a local taxi driver, that’s why Yambilee is so big: People here always look for a way to have a good time, no matter how bad things get.

Destination Yam Country--Opelousas, Louisiana

Leaving my house outside Boston at 3:45 am, when it was 33 degrees outside, I headed south to Yambilee, the festival celebrating the Louisiana Yam industry. I arrived at Opelousas, the festival’s hometown, at noon, as the temperature approached 80.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Saluting Abbeville

When the float bearing the Cattle Royalty arrives in front of the Court House, the Grand Parade comes to a complete stop--or at least it's supposed to. This year's driver kept going, as queens and relatives all yelled for him to slow down, and the festival director, Miss Denise, ran after the float. She managed to stop him before it was too late, but it was not easy, as she had to run while both hands held full glasses of milk. The point of stopping the parade is so that the royals may be handed big goblets of chocolate milk which they then raise in a toast to Abbeville, the Parish, and all those who have attended the festival. It's a tradition as charming as the town itself. Thank you, Abbeville--I salute you right back.

Nothing is sacred. No, really.

Now, even God is doing product placement.

I never doubt their commitment to sparkle motion

The parade route is almost five miles long and takes several hours to complete. While that's grueling enough on a 90-degree day for people in floats, it's brutal for all the marching bands, majorettes, cheerleaders, and dance teams. While the tiniest dancers (like the Tabasco Sauce girls, shown at bottom) understandably looked pretty weary at the 4 1/2 mile mark where I was taking pictures, some--like the front wave of the Abbeville High band, shown above--somehow kept their shine on till the very end.

If beads were gold, our economy would be fine.

The great thrill for many children at the afternoon Grand Parade was the chance to catch penny candy and endless strings of beads thrown from the fire trucks and floats.

No one leaves here hungry

If you're in Abbeville, you wouldn't want to skip a meal at Miss Beaulah's Kitchen. Though usually closed on Saturday, Miss Beaulah was behind the counter for Cattle Festival and the joint was jumping. Her specialty is crawfish pie and she's known for hamburgers about the size of your head, but day to day the menu varies. When I chose the New Orleans style po boy from the handwritten options listed on the board, Beulah's lovely daughter handed me a huge stack of napkins. I asked if she thought I was likely to be messy, and she and her mother both just laughed. "Oh, it'll be messy, alright!" she warned, and she was correct. But I will also add that it was excellent.

I always try the local food at these festivals and I had my first authentic cracklin' in Abbeville. It cracked all right—my teeth, mainly. When I couldn’t get through the first bite, I was told to just persevere (some pieces are tougher than others) and it was delicious after that. The Cattle Queen showed me the proper technique.

Beauty & this week's Beast

One of the primary duties of a festival queen is to attend other festivals and participate in their traditions, many of which involve mud, livestock, or both. Chelsea's a good sport, riding the bull even though she wasn't crazy about the idea, and then kneeling down for a little "kiss." At first, she was just playing along for pictures, but then Mr. Puzzles took a liking to her and nestled his head into her lap, which (as you can see) won her over.

It's not just a festival for the Menards

Farmers Mike and Paula Menard and sons Kyle and Jabian showed the visiting royalty the ropes with little Buddy and Mr. Puzzles, the bull. At one point, Jabian (shown above playing with Buddy) grabbed Mr. Puzzle’s tail to “surf” behind him on the grass. That set off Mr. Puzzles, who bolted, pulling first Jabian (who let go) and then Mike (who held on). The bull dragged Mike for a few yards as queens darted out of the way, until Mike (flat on his back, arms over his head, but smiling the whole way) got the bull under control. Later, the family taught the queens how to prep a bull for a show and offered a hands-on guide to where all our favorite cuts of meat come from. (I now see brisket in a whole new light.)

Girl on a mission.

"Buddy! Buddy, I have a crown! I have a crown for you! Buddeeee!"
Buddy, for the record, did not want a crown.

"I can't talk now. I'm in a field with the queens."

That headline above is, verbatim, what the farmboy was saying when I took this photograph. When the caller asked him to repeat himself, he added emphatically, but not very helpfully, "The queens." The queens in question were both visiting from Rayne: Chelsea, the Frog Queen, and Kelsey, the Teen Frog Queen (who won her title on her third try). I was surprised to discover that farmboys no longer resemble Alonzo from Little House on the Prairie--though Kyle, shown here, lives on a farm and shows cattle at Ag Fairs, he also has manic panic red hair, piercings, camos, and a cell phone.

Lead by example

The 2008 Cattle Queen, Kristen Ann Hoover, lives two and a half hours away from Abbeville, but when she decided to run for a festival pageant, she chose Cattle anyway because she was impressed by the dedication of local Vermillion Parish farmers who had waded neck-deep in flood waters to care for their animals during Hurricane Rita (which devastated the parish). On the Saturday morning of the festival, she not only led her "herd"--as the Cattle royalty are called collectively--but the visiting queens in activities at a local livestock yard. Most years, the visiting queens have to milk a cow but the local cattle were stressed by the back-to-back hurricanes that recently hit the region and milk production is down, so this year's royals bottle-fed a baby calf named Buddy and then climbed aboard Mr. Puzzles, a bull. Kristen led the way on both counts.

Sunrise over Abbeville

The sun is barely up this Saturday morning of Cattle Festival weekend in Abbeville, Louisiana (population 12,000), but at the parking lot of the Super 1 grocery store, the floats are already being lined up in a long, quiet row, while volunteers ready them for festival queens, local politicans, and small business crews to ride in the parade a few hours from now.