Saturday, November 22, 2008

Community Service Field Notes: Miss Sulphur Heritage and the kindest cut of all

Erin Husbands, Miss Sulphur Heritage, grew her
hair out for over two years, not as a style choice,
but as a community service. This fall, she had 10
inches cut off to donate to the non-profit organization
“Locks of Love,” which provides wigs for children
who have lost their hair due to illness. As reporter
Lee Peck of KPLC TV told viewers, this is the
second time; Erin first donated hair to Locks of Love
almost three years ago, and she planned for this
second haircut almost from the moment the first
was complete. That’s quite a vision—a donation
two years in the making. But Erin says that getting
new hair is “a life-changing experience for those
children, and I just had to step in and do what I could.”

Friday, November 21, 2008

24 hours

Festival queens are usually insanely busy,
juggling school, work, volunteer events,
and queen duties. In this photo from
earlier this fall, you see glimpses of
that life for Chelsea, the Frog Queen.
In the span of 24 hours, she finished
working an 8-hour shift at her job in
the mall, woke up early for a full-morning
Buddy Walk with Down's Syndrome
children, went rock-climbing (in banner,
no less) just to see what it would be like,
went home to pack up her regalia and
drive to another city, and then headed
off to attend that city's festival ball regalia.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Presto change-o

One of the fascinating elements of the evening is that the Queen wears the same dress as all the Queens before her—literally. It has adjustable seams and pieces that fold down or out as necessary, so that when her successor is crowned, both Queens are whisked away to a room where a seamstress stands by to help speed the dress exchange. The new Queen returns to begin her reign literally wrapped in history. This year’s queen, Blaine (shown at right), loves the festival so much, she ran for this crown four times—and, finally, it is hers.

Princess practice

Each girl competing for the crown has her own young attendant, who wears a white formal and sits up front for the entire ball. The youngest participants of all are the Orange Blossoms, shown here with orange sashes at the waist, one of whom is shown reacting to the chill of air conditioning in a sleeveless dress.

Minding their manners

The entire Ball is very ritualized, with escorts and attendants, formal wear and even a traditional way to wave a scepter (in front of you, sweeping left to right and then back). The attendant presenting herself to the outgoing royalty with the required curtsy is the granddaughter of Popich, the first king. Kari, the Queen shown here, is the sister of a past Orange queen and daughter of a past president.

Return of the King

The King’s Coronation Ball, which crowns both
the new King and the new Queen, is now held in
the English Turn Country Club, which may well
be the nicest venue any of the festival queens
will see for months. People who grow up in
Plaquemine’s Parish see the King’s Ball as both the
party of the year and a family tradition. The first
King, Tom Popich, attended 42 years after his
crowning, and more than 20 of his successors
joined him; they were easily identified by the
heavy silver medallions around their necks.

Plaquemine's Parish Orange Ball: A grand tradition

It isn't all cattle yards and pig barns for the festival queens. The Orange Ball is held in a country club outside New Orleans, but it wasn't always that way. The ball's celebrants all hail from Plaquemines Parish, which was almost completely flooded during Katrina, as all the ring levees gave way. Buras, the original hometown of the festival, was wiped out: its water tower collapsed into itself, the civic center was smashed, and homes were leveled. But the tradition of the Orange Festival is so important that the community, while rebuilding and heartsick with loss, held the festival anyway, but in Belle Chasse, 50 miles away (though still in the same parish). 107 days after Katrina, they proved they wouldn’t let one storm change history. Nights like this one are proof of their spirit.

Monday, November 10, 2008

So long and thanks for all the Frogs

Festival director Cheryl McCarty and ultimate volunteer Miles Boudreaux wave from their gator as the parade passes by. The friendliness and warmth they offer defines Rayne, where
the welcome mat is always out. Thanks, Rayne, for making me so at home.

Belle of the Ball

Once the shy girl who didn't say boo,
now Chelsea reigns over the entire festival
from the highest perch in the parade,
a long-held dream that she made come
true with effort, patience, and the right

Candy queens

Katelyn, Queen RayLaNe, and Heather, Washington Catfish Queen, throw candy to the crowds from their float, where they were joined by a Whitman's Sampler of assorted queens representing both Rayne and other towns.

I think I detect a theme here...

Stevie, the Gueydan Duck queen, graces an enormous duck decoy that might be upstaged by the duck mascot, with its feathered headdress, riding in the truck pulling her float.

Brighten the corner where you are

You might not think an RV would be the most glamorous locale but if you're a festival queen getting ready for your big parade, you can make do. Chelsea's family had set up camp by the festival grounds, cooking ribs and gumbo, and offering her a home base close to all the events. Here, she gets dressed for the Grand Parade.

Duty calls, round two

This year, several photographers thought that simply holding a frog wasn't good enough, so Chelsea and her Teen Queen Kelsey were pressed to eat frog legs on camera as well. It's not really their fave--bbq burgers are much preferred--but they played along, with samples from the local Jaycees booth. (For the record, the Jaycees' frog legs were delicious.)

Duty calls

On Saturday of the festival, the press expects the Frog Queen to pose with a frog. This year's queen Chelsea grew up here, so she was pretty comfortable complying with this request. The trick to keep the frog as poised as the queen is to hold the frog with one finger on either side of its backbone.

Oh, pioneer!

At Frog Derby, the crowds were entertained by this irrepressible dance troupe from neighboring Crowley. The first time I saw the International Rice Festival dancers (at the Rice Ball last month), I was surprised when the line up of young women appeared to contain a man. It was explained to me that the group, formerly known as the Ricettes, had been all-female for many years until he signed up, and the name had been changed to reflect the new gender diversity.

Frog Derby 5: The good Grandpa

The overall winner was Madison Guidry, whose grandfather is seen here safeguarding her trophy and frog bucket (yes, Pete's inside) as the press clamored for Maddie's picture.

Frog Derby 4: Ups and downs

Nicole watches as her frog makes a valiant leap in the frog jump portion of the competition, but her sister Summer won that battle instead.

Frog Derby 3: Not as easy at it looks

Emily seems to question how much she really wants to be a Frog handler.

Frog Derby 2: Meet the toads

The costumes of the non-human participants this year included (left to right) an offshore oilfrog (Pete), cowboy frog, clown frog, and farmgirl frog (named Bella Mae). Unseen is the first frog's accompanying three-foot tall oil rig, which contributed to its win in the costume category.

Frog Derby 1: Suit up

Byron and Monica Foote, parents of Frog Derby contestant Maddie Guidry, help her dress up her frog Pete in the costume she has made for him to wear in the competition that kicks off day two of the festival. Maddie, like the other competitors, has a costume of her own: checkered tops and caps, with white shorts and shoes, intended to evoke races of the equine, not amphibious, sort.

Dancing by moonlight

One of the big attractions to fairs and festivals is the chance to hear great musicians play live and dance the night away. At the Frog Fest, the fancy footwork spilled out of the main Pavillion (where the Golden Frog royalty twirled about the dance floor) onto the midway itself.

Fueling up

Is it still a "girly drink" if it's 20 ounces?

Attention! (Sort of...)

The festival kicked off on Friday night with the local boy scouts and weeblos parading the colors. There was something magic about seeing this little troop doing their job by Ferris Wheel light.

How to eat a deep-fried Oreo on a carnival midway

Hand over three bucks. Watch a teenage girl dunk oreos in a vat of pale, sweet batter, then toss them one at a time into a trough of oil that sizzles when they make contact. Stand by as they are fished out, dried on a hot metal vent, and then handed over in a paper cone covered with so much confectioner's sugar that the Oreos resemble snowdrifts. Wait three minutes before eating to avoid losing all the skin off the roof of your mouth. When you are finished, feel vaguely dirty and unseemly about the whole thing.

A taste of tradition

One thing I love about Louisiana festivals is how often food vendors are not just carnival workers manning some interchangeable booth but local cooks who have served their fare at the same festival for years. Boo John's "drippy beef" (cooked for 4 hours) has long been a staple at local festivals. Boo passed away this summer, but daughter Sabrina keeps his delicious legacy going.

A new wind blowing

The festival's move to November from its usual September date meant changes in the weather: for the first time in memory, opening day was cool and windy (50s in Louisiana!) instead of hot and sticky (with past temperatures usually in the 90s). One old lady groused about the move to the director but I heard even more say they hope the move becomes permanent. One reason so many like the new date is this: November isn't tropical storm season, so the Frog Fest didn't get rained on for the first time in many years.

Grammy would approve

One of Rayne's claims to fame is that it is still home to a true five-and-dime store (and not just one of the national dollar stores that are everywhere). Worthmore 5&10 is currently run by the grandchildren of its original owners and has sat on this corner--shelves stuffed with goods both practical and whimsical--for as long as anyone living in Rayne can recall. The front window was already full of Christmas gear--the day after Halloween. This is the kind of place my Grandmother used to love: perfect for picking up, in her words, "Oh ya know, this 'n that."

Time stands still and rolls on

Rayne is a town of contrasts, where "old school" and "the latest thing" rub shoulders, or, in this case, face each other down across the street: Farmer's True Value Hardware, looking every bit like a time capsule of the mid-20th century, sitting directly opposite the Glamour Closet.

The Big Gig: Frog Festival in Rayne Louisiana

This weekend, Rayne--the town which launched my discoveries of Louisiana back in August when I attended its crowning of a new frog queen--finally got to celebrate what is known as the "Big Gig," it's annual Frog Festival, which had been delayed by Gustav and Ike. I headed south to see my Rayne friends and participate in that frog spirit, on display everywhere I looked.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Save the last dance for Basile.

The Swine Festival is the smallest
of the festivals I have yet been to
and it feels almost like a family
barbeque for a really big family
who just happen to know the best
Zydeco bands. From the tiny
Swine royals to the elderly couple
dancing under the pig barn roof,
it was a true all-ages party.
The welcome was warm,
the music great, and
I thank Basile for sharing
its tradition with me.

Hogs at Swine

As the late afternoon sun started throwing long shadows, a dozen or so Harleys roared into the fairgrounds, the riders all suited up in leather and denim and bandanas. But don't think Hell's Angels just yet: once they parked, the group--mostly in their 40s and 50s, men and women both--politely approached the gate to apologize for parking without having yet paid admission. They lined up, paid five bucks each, and donned the proof-of-admission: little robin's-egg blue paper bracelets that added a cheery note amid all the skulls, crossbones, metal jewelry, and rawhide cuffs.


She's walked a mile in those baby shoes

During a portion of the day when the Visiting Queens joined the Swine royalty onstage to introduce themselves to the fairgoers, the littlest royals were lifted up by their "big girl" role models for introductions. The Petite Miss Swine is held here by the new International Rice Festival Queen, Devin Babineaux, who knows what it's like to a pint-sized festival royal: at 8 months old, she was won the Baby Rice pageant, and then every two years won the next title up (tiny, petite, and toddler). After the children's divisions, there is only Junior queen, chosen by the schools, and nothing again until the Queen's pageant. So when she wasn't picked to be Junior Queen, she cried so hard that her mom consoled her with the encouragment that, "One day, you'll go on and be the big Rice queen." And now, at 18, she is. She was given the option of competing for Queen of Queens, but has turned it down, because she doesn't want to risk winning and then having to give up her Rice title. "Rice was my dream," she told me, "And I want to keep it."

Try this on for size

Misty Picard, age 22, is the new Swine Queen, and new to festival pageants in general. She has dipped her toes in the waters of two other kinds of pageants, first what she refers to as "a glitz pageant," and then in a city title as Miss Church Point. She set her sights on joining the festival sisterhood after attending Swine last year and being impressed by the friendliness and spontaneity of the queen. At the festival last year, Misty caught the greasy pig, a feat which came naturally because she loves animals. This year, she has a hog on her crown, not in her hands: with her new title comes a crown taller than her own head, and adorned with a pink rhinestone pig. (Hmm, does that make it swinestone?) She says she's glad to have joined the festival system because, "It has more personality. You really get to talk to people in your
travels, so you can work on your people skills." She's already thinking about competing against 84 of her new sisters at Queen of Queens in February. "I just got
the title, but I promise you, I'll be ready!"

The Away Team

Unlike in Ohio and Washington, where festivals tend to send their full courts to other festivals, in Louisiana, it is often just the official Queen (the winner of the Miss title) or the Queen and her Teen Queen who travel. When you see an entire visiting court it makes quite an impression. Shown here at Swine are the Frog court: Tadpole, Miss, Teen, Deb, Ms. and Junior.

The Home Team

At most festivals, you see the whole slate of a town's representatives appearing together. At Swine, that included the Ms., Miss, Petite Miss, Teen, Junior Teen, Toddler, Deb, and Queen Petunia winners all above.

The family that sparkles together...

With festival pageants playing such a major role in so many towns' local traditions and civic fundraisers, it's no surprise that often whole families have been involved. Three generations here include: 2 year-old Breanna (past Baby Miss Swine), mom Kayla (the reigning Ms. Evangeline Parish), grandmother Janice (Evangeline Parish She's My Grandma Queen), and little brother Brycelin (1st runner up Baby Mr. Swine). Several weeks ago, when I attended the Rice Ball (the formal festival event, not the arancini served in Italian restaurants), every person at my table either was related to, was friends with, or had been a festival queen.

Prize and prejudice

It is remarkable to me how many
of the elements of a fair from my childhood have not changed at all: the Zipper is still a ride (and still called The Zipper); the scent of fried dough still fills the air; and midway games still offer terrible prizes. I overheard a young couple arguing about such a win: TJ, left, spent $3 on a balloon game to win this painting of a scary clown, which irritated Danielle, on the right. She has a prejudice against anything in costume. "I hate clowns. I don't like them at all, or the Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus. None of it." She agreed to look at it for this picture, but otherwise demanded he keep "the stupid thing" covered up.

There are no safety codes involving rhinestones

Hang on to your crown, missy--it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

Greasy Pig Contest, Part 3: Dive! Dive! Dive!

In the final stage, those who haven't intentionally been left behind or simply chickened out at the last moment make full-body dives to try and tackle the beast, a victory offering simple rewards: satisfaction, bragging rights, and a trip to a faucet to get the grease off your hands.

Greasy Pig Contest, Part 2: On second thought...

The second stage of the contest
is re-consideration, as the pig actually
nears the queens, and some
appear to have a change of heart
about actually embracing the
vaseline-smeared living football
headed their way.

Greasy Pig Contest, Part 1: Run for it!

The most photographed event of Swine Festival is the Greasy Pig Contest, in which a pig is turned loose on the field and contestants (in this case, the Visiting Queens) run to catch the poor squealing beast until one of them actually pins him down. The first stage, when the judge yells "Go!" is full on enthusiasm, as you see here.

You can't hurry cracklins.

You'll just have
to wait for this
man to be done.
And it'll be worth it.

The Other Fall Classic

With the World Series over, Basile still had teams locked in struggle to win the Swine Festival Pork
Cook-off. Local teams, often just buddies who enter on their own or get a business to sponsor them, cook up ribs, pork stews, and other swine delicacies, and serve up samples to the fairgoers. (Note: "Sample" in the Northeast means something on a toothpick or a dixie-cup-sized serving; sample here means the entire bowl in the hands of the guy top center.) This can be serious business, as in the case of Team le Porc Cuisine (top), who bought matching outfits, got glossy banners, and had the nicest tent. But they're so doggedly competitive, even some of their own loved ones went to work for other teams this year (including a team named "We Left the Pigs Looking for the Hogs"). The winners of the Grand Champion prize, were much more likably low-key in contrast: Todd Fontenot, JT Durio, and Walter Klump (representing Trappers Bar) cooked under a blue tarp next to a pick-up truck and wowed the judges with cracklin', boston butt roast, stew, and ribs. By the time I met them, they had also been consuming the product of their sponsor for about nine hours, so it would be judicious of me not to publish all of what they said in their post-cook-off condition.

Creole Cowboy and the Cupid Shuffle

Though a carnival was set up in the field behind the open-sided pig barn, most of the action took place under the roof, where live Zydeco bands played all day. Gino Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie kept the crowds dancing in the afternoon (top) to their swirling Creole Cowboy music, a blend of accordion, scrub board (worn over the chest), vocals, and guitar. Earlier, the visiting queens moved "to the left, to the left, to the right, to the right," for the wildly popular Cupid Shuffle, a crossover craze which defies easy labels: it's a Zydeco-influenced hip-hop line dance.

Hot dogs are for wimps

One of the most iconic foods of Cajun country is boudin, a chubby sleeve of sausage casing stuffed with a moist (if slightly unsettling) blend of rice, pork liver, and pork heart. If your boudin is dark, it probably also contains pig blood, and (for my money) is more intense. At the Swine Festival, there are boudin-eating contests, including one for the visiting queens who must speedily consume a boudin log the size of a fat baby doll arm. Chelsea and Summer, representing the Frog Festival, posed gracefully with their boudin before the contest started and things got serious (and, as you see from the top right photo, a little queasy for some). But a few gulping seconds later, Summer, arms up, was the winner.

Under the Pig Top

The festival originated as a celebration of the local trade in "feeder pigs"; a live hog market operated under the tin roof of this same barn which is now the focal point of this event. For the days of the festival, the pig barn acts like a rural circus tent, offering entertainment, fair foods, and a carnival midway.

Going whole hog: Swine Fest in Basile, Louisiana

The first weekend of November took me to tiny Basile, Louisiana, where pretty much the town's entire population of 1,700 comes out for the Swine Festival, now in its 42nd year. This is really a core family tradition in these parts: this year's directors are four Fontenot sisters who grew up attending the Swine festival.