Celebrate delicious Southern food during these autumn events.
"You don't need a silver fork to eat," Louisiana Chef Paul Prudhomme once said. True, any fork will do, especially when savoring Louisiana and Mississippi food festivals. At these homegrown throw-downs celebrating regional harvests, commodities, and recipes considered Southern trademarks, culinary specialties simmered in tradition are happily devoured with or without a fork.
Delta Hot Tamales
Small, spicy, stacked, and tied in bundles of six, Delta tamales, whose shuck shacks are found throughout the Mississippi Delta, are venerated each October in Greenville, Miss., during the Delta Hot Tamale Festival (Oct. 13–15). At this three-day festival of contests, concerts, and tons of tamales, dozens of tamale vendors from across the South converge in Greenville to sell and vie for the title "Best Delta Tamale." So what m akes a Delta tamale? According to the Southern Foodways Alliance, recipes are passed down and tweaked from generation to generation, and are linked to the tamales Mexican migrant workers shared with African-Americans as they worked the fields together during the early 1900s. The recipe became an amalgamation of cultures utilizing American ingredients such as cornmeal, which replaced masa harina (traditional corn flour) for the dough. The stuffing features seasoned beef, chicken, or pork that is finely ground. The dough and filling are patted and piped into softened corn husks then wrapped and simmered in a chili powder- flavored broth – unlike Mexican tamales, which are simply steamed.
The Delta Hot Tamale Festival transforms Greenville's Washington Avenue into tamale central. Vendors line both sides of Washington, slipping over onto cross streets and allowing just enough space along the main drag for Saturday's Hot Tamale Parade. Leading the parade and presiding over the festival kick-off – the Friday night street party – is Greenville's festival royalty, an honorary senior couple who welcomes lovers of the Delta's shuck-shack delicacies. Greenville's Tamale Festival street party, located a block from Washington on Walnut Avenue, sets up headquarters at the Trop Greenville Inn & Suites, a property from 1890 whose courtyard overflows into the street with cold drinks, buffets, and, of course, tamales. The ticketed event provides plenty of table space and a concert stage boasting music as hot as the Mississippi Delta.
Sugar Cane and Meat Pies
Residents of New Iberia, La., recommend bringing your sweet tooth when visiting its Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival, a celebration commemorating the area's 220-plus years of sugar cane production. It's an impressive history worth celebrating, which New Iberia has done for the past 75 years over September's last weekend (Sept. 21–25 this year).
"It's (sugar cane) been a part of all of our lives, and we're proud of it," said former Sugar Cane King and past festival board member Jessie Breaux. "During the festival we have a parade every day: a candy-toss parade on Friday, a children's parade on Saturday, and the royalty parade on Sunday."
Similar to the Mardi Gras king and queen, New Iberia crowns a King Sucrose and Queen Sugar during Saturday's coronation at the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival Building at 600 Parkview Drive. Other festival events and entertainment are reminiscent of an old-time street festival and county fair, with events divided between several venues that include the Pepperplex, 607 Sucrose Drive off U.S. Highway 90, a 65-acre sports complex where carnival rides and vendors set up. Sugar cane exhibits, demos, art shows, sugar-cooking contests, concerts, and dancing are staged throughout the fairgrounds and the city park.
September also is meat pie time. Actually, Natchitoches meat pies are available 365 days a year, but they are honored during the Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival (Sept. 16 and 17).
Natchitoches meat pies evolved over the city's 300-year history. Their creation is credited to the Creole ladies who made and sold them along the Cane River.
"Meat pies have been made here for quite a while. All the Creole ladies downriver made them as a handheld lunch or snack that was easy to eat and could be taken into the fields," said Madeline DeBlieux, marketing and public relations manager for the Natchitoches Convention & Visitors Bureau. DeBlieux estimates this year's Meat Pie Festival will draw nearly 8,000 to Louisiana's oldest permanent settlement.
Meat pies, similar to a Spanish empanada, is a pastry stuffed with finely chopped or ground beef or pork. It's seasoned with onion, green pepper, and garlic, folded into a half-moon shape, and always deep-fried. Over the two-day fete, 10,000 meat pies will be eaten, including those stuffed with crawfish and shrimp. The Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival is free and scattered along the banks of Cane River Lake that flows through the historical downtown district. Highlights of the two-day event include: the annual Cane River Motorcycle Run, pie-eating contests, concerts on the riverbank stage, crafts, and fireworks.
Seafood and Crawfish
A seafood lover's paradise can be found along the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast. Both states host a variety of seafood feasts, but two favorites are the Louisiana Seafood Festival in New Orleans (Sept. 2–4) and Mississippi's 35th Annual Biloxi Seafood Festival (Sept. 10 and 11). Plan an extra day or two in Biloxi before its festival to experience one of its shrimping tours.
Biloxi's Seafood Festival is a ticketed event held at Point Cadet Plaza (2016 costs are $5 for gate admission and $15 for an all-access wristband). Biloxi draws more than 25,000 to its festival, which sports one of the country's largest gumbo championships, in addition to the assemblage of a 200-foot shrimp po'boy sandwich that is sliced and sold to the lucky visitors who line up early.
New Orleans' food brings millions to the Crescent City each year, especially during the Louisiana Seafood Festival, hosted at the New Orleans City Park Festival Grounds. More than 50 seafood dishes are served up from some of New Orleans' most prestigious restaurateurs. A festival highlight is the seafood-cooking demos presented daily by celebrity chefs.
Foodies around the world have a Louisiana crawfish festival on their bucket list. Crawfish (also known locally as "mudbugs"), while out of season in fall, will still appear on local menus. However, crawfish season returns in January and runs through May, which is when crawfish are abundant. To eat your share of the seasonal bounty, travel next year to both Shreveport's Mudbug Madness (held over Memorial Day weekend) and Breaux Bridge's Crawfish Festival (May 5–7, 2017). At these festivals, tons of these tasty crustaceans are boiled and served with corn on the cob and new potatoes. After peeling and eating your fill, work off the calories by dancing to Cajun and zydeco music.
Good times and great food are waiting for you in Louisiana and Mississippi this fall. While you may not need a knife and fork to partake, it's recommended so as not to miss a single delectable morsel.
Suzanne Corbett is a cookbook author and contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
September/October 2016 Issue
Menu of dining and lodging ideas
Hot Tamale Festival: While street tamales are plentiful at the festival, take time to eat a few at one of Greenville's celebrated shuck shacks, such as Hot Tamale Heaven or Doe's Eat Place. Hot Tamale Heaven, the festival's 2015 first-place winner in the commercial division, is located roadside in a trailer. Order at the walk-up window and try their specialty – the battered deep-fried tamales. Doe's, established in 1941 and recognized as an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation, is housed in a delightfully ramshackle building whose customers enter through the kitchen. Doe's chargrilled steaks and platters of tamales have become a quintessential Mississippi dining experience.
The Hampton Inn (AAA Three Diamonds) is located at 1155 VFW Road. Here, AAA members can save on lodging rates.
Sugar Cane Festival: History lovers looking for a sweet place to stay will find the Rip Van Winkle Gardens a treat. The plantation-style complex from 1870 preserves its historical mansion and gardens with separate B&B cottages and the Café Jefferson. Built by 19th-century actor Joseph Jefferson as a hunting lodge, public tours of the grounds and mansion are available, as are overnight accommodations.
For those who camp: Opportunities from rustic to glamping are available at various New Iberia campgrounds. Closest to the Sugar Cane Festival grounds are the SugArena RV Park and Cajun RVera, both located at Acadiana Fairgrounds.
Natchitoches Meat Pie Festival: Natchitoches' historic district offers 22 B&Bs and guest cottages. Many are located along the banks of the Cane River Lake, offering comfortable back porches – perfect perches for savoring morning coffee. Before pulling out of town, make a pilgrimage to Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen, where legendary crisp-fried meat pies have been savored since 1967.
Seafood and Crawfish Festivals: Accommodations throughout Mississippi and Louisiana during its seafood and crawfish festivals are as varied as its seafood. A few considerations: Book a night in the French Quarter using the list of AAA rated hotels, which includes Hotel Monteleone (AAA Four Diamonds), famed for its revolving bar, and the reportedly haunted Bourbon Orleans (AAA Three Diamonds).
Casino Hotels in Shreveport and Biloxi such as Boomtown in Bossier City/Shreveport offer both packages and location convenience worth exploring. In Breaux Bridge, consider sleeping like a Cajun in vintage cabins at Bayou Cabins B&B on Bayou Teche. This collection of historical cabins is gathered together to create a quaint village. There also are motels in town, including Holiday Inn Express and Microtel Inns & Suites (AAA Two Diamonds).
Dining picks: The Zydeco breakfast at Café Des Amis (AAA Two Diamonds), where live music and Cajun two-stepping is served with a side of boudin and beignets. In Shreveport, it's Herby-K's, dishing up Louisiana's best seafood and pub grub since 1936. Herby-K's specialty is their take on the shrimp po'boy, The Shrimp Buster, butterflied shrimp pounded flat, deep fried, and served on buttered French bread with red sauce, a side of slaw, and fries.
Lasyone's in Natchitoches, La., is famous for meat pies. Louisiana Travel
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