Bash on the Bayou

Join in the annual Shrimp & Petroleum Festival for a Cajun celebration of Louisiana's most essential industries.
Author:
Publish date:

If you visit the Web site for the

Shrimp & Petroleum Festival and click on the royalty section, you'll see the king and queen of last year's festival, resplendent in white and wearing crowns and triumphant grins, each gripping a scepter.

And atop the scepter is what could be the symbol of this entire festival -- a shrimp wrapped around an oil derrick.

The festival, now in its 71st year, is the pride and joy of Morgan City, La. The annual event celebrates the marriage of two industries -- oil and shrimp --that to the rest of the country likely seem at odds with each another, but which have proved to be the lifeblood of southern Louisiana for the past century.

Louisiana is responsible for approximately 35% of the nation's domestic shrimp haul; in 2004, the state produced 83.6 million barrels of oil, ranking it near the top in crude oil production nationwide.

Morgan City is nestled on the Atchafalaya River, 90 miles southwest of New Orleans.

For approximately 360 days out of the year, it's home to about 15,000 people; each Labor Day weekend, however, during the Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, the population swells to a comparatively gargantuan 150,000.

"We have people that travel every year from Canada," says Jada Aloisio, this year's festival organizer.

Geaux Deep

While the history of shrimping in Louisiana goes back almost as far as the history of the state itself -- in 1774, a visitor to the region made note of the shrimp being caught with large nets in the lakes south of New Orleans -- the shrimp festival didn't get its start until the mid-1930s, when shrimpers from Morgan City obtained the equipment necessary to go harvesting out in the deeper waters of the gulf.

"Because that's where the shrimp are born, it was a natural thing for them to want to go to deeper water," Aloisio explains.

The shrimpers, back from the gulf and ecstatic about their hefty catch, paraded through the streets of Morgan City to celebrate, and the shrimp festival was born.

The next year, 1937, the blessing of the fleet was added, and the festival has been growing ever since.

By 1967, offshore drilling had been long established in the nearby Gulf of Mexico, and petroleum was formally added to the festival.

Today, of course, the oil industry has a strong presence in the area.

Shell

(RDSA)

sponsors the festival,

BP

(BP) - Get Report

and recent

Anadarko

(APC) - Get Report

acquisition Kerr-McGee also have a significant impact on the local economy.

Morgan City is even home to the

International Petroleum Museum and Exposition, which features "Mr. Charlie," a retired oil rig the public can tour.

Since its inception, the festival has been held every year except one. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew struck Morgan City.

"There were places here that didn't have power for six weeks," Aloisio recalls, and the festival had to be canceled.

Last year, however, in the wake of devastating Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the festival was one of the only recurring state events to be held.

Festival organizers wanted it to be "a symbol of the rebirth of Louisiana," and 120,000 people -- close to the average -- attended.

Proceeds were donated to victims of the hurricanes.

Festival Traditions

Today, both shrimp and petroleum boats parade down the Atchafalaya to be blessed for prosperity by a priest. "We don't turn any boat away," says Aloisio, including pleasure crafts.

The blessing of the fleet takes place on Sunday morning and is, by all accounts, one of the highlights of the festival. "It's really beautiful to see all those boats ... people line the shores to watch it," Aloisio says.

Most years, the blessing of the fleet culminates in a toast between the king's and queen's vessels -- when the royal couple of the festival lean over the bows of their respective boats to clink champagne glasses. But this year, organizers aren't sure the toast will take place, because the boats normally used are still needed out in the Gulf, repairing oil rigs damaged by last year's destructive storms.

Just as in any other year, however, there will be a king and queen. The young lady is usually a native of Morgan City, a year out of high school, and must be pursuing some form of higher education, notes Aloisio. She is selected through an interview process.

The king is nominated and selected by a committee of past kings, and is usually connected with either the shrimping or petroleum industries.

Former king and Morgan City native Rodney Grow, for instance, works in the appliance business, but sells to shrimpers. And his lineage didn't hurt -- his grandfather rode in the first blessing of the fleet.

Royalty's responsibilities basically consist of reigning over the festival, Grow says, and visiting other fairs and festivals to promote the Morgan City event.

Other festival highlights include children's day on Saturday, fireworks over the Atchafalaya and, of course, the food and entertainment.

As any frequenter of Louisiana festivals can tell you, good food and good music are necessary in equal parts. The event this year features everything from zydeco and Cajun music to the slightly less traditional rock of '80s cover band the Molly Ringwalds.

Plates are filled at the Cajun Culinary Classic, where various local nonprofit organizations decorate booths and cook up everything from Jamaican jerk pork to fried fish and boiled shrimp.

Festival regulars always know where Central Catholic High School's booth is located and swear by its wildly popular, juicy Fair Burger. Those looking for a slightly more exotic dish can try the shrimp pirogues, a piece of pita bread filled with shrimp etouffee, a spicy, saucy Cajun stew.

The Celebration Continues

Grow, who has been in charge of the fireworks for the past 30 years, recalls walking to the festival when he was a kid. The event has exploded in size, he adds. Where it once featured a small craft fair, now there's a waiting list of 250 crafters.

But all the growth doesn't provoke complaints from older festivalgoers, including Grow. As he admits, "it makes us better." In fact, you would be hard put to find a person from the area who hasn't been to the festival, Grow points out -- it is still a very local celebration.

And organizers swear the festival's popularity doesn't mean they're straying from the traditions that first made the celebration so important. "We will never lose the blessing of the fleet, or the boat parade; we'll always have a children's day," explains Aloisio.

Above all, the event is a way for natives of south Louisiana to honor the traditional Cajun culture that so many of them grew up with.

"We preserve the Cajun culture in so much that we do, through our music and our heritage," Aloisio says.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Bobbi Parry is a freelance writer originally from Salt Lake City. She now lives in Baton Rouge, La., where she is working toward an M.F.A. at Louisiana State University.