Apr 19, 201012:00 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Errol Laborde: In the Land of the Cochon de Lait
Long before the Jazz Fest made cochon de lait poor boys famous, the Central Louisiana town of Mansura had made the meat (sans poor boy) part of the state’s culinary language. Each Mothers’ Day weekend (May 6-9, this year), the town celebrates its annual Cochon de Lait Festival. Two years ago while driving up Louisiana Highway 1, I first came upon the festival by accident.
A sign on the edge of the fairgrounds announced that Mansura is La Capitale de Cochon de Lait. That claim has remained unchallenged by other world capitals, nor is it questioned by El Mansura, Egypt. Napoleonic solders who had received land grants to settle in Central Louisiana compared the area to the Egyptian town near where they had been stationed. Both Mansuras stood on fertile agricultural land; both were centers of cotton trade.
Pork, however, would come to best identify New Mansura, especially the young sucking pig from which cochon de lait gets its name. Roast pig, at any age, is the sustenance of many fundraisers in Avoyelles Parish. At church fairs pig carcasses are strapped on frames to which flames ascend, making the meat flavorful and the skin crispy. At Mansura the event is such an institution that there is even a Cochon de Lait Center building and a permanent roasting area. If the traffic and the balloons along the highway are not big enough signs that the festival is in place, then there's the towering blow-up pig balloon, looking like Porky in overalls, waving with the wind to the crowd.
Beginning that Thursday evening there had been various fair-like events at the site, including contests testing those that sought to be future Olympians in Hog-Calling, Beer-Drinking and Boudin-Eating. But the high holy moment of the festival came at noon Saturday when the serving began for cochon de lait and pork jambalaya. Three women, each wearing St. Joseph Eagles T-shirts, worked with vigor, filling Styrofoam trays with pork dinners. Sunday is an even bigger day. By tradition, people of Avoyelles, whenever there is a fair and pork is on the menu, purchase Sunday dinner tickets days in advance in anticipation of getting meals to go. Folks in that part of the state are early risers and know not to be late when cochon is served. Latecomers –– and city folk –– might need to settle for the hot dog stand.
By Sunday afternoon the fires for roasting were dying out. Throughout the region, kitchen garbage cans were now filled with empty Styrofoam cartons. Back at the fairgrounds, there were amusement rides to be experienced, as well as a Reptile Thrill Show.
Once again, La Cochon de Lait Capitale had serviced its constituents. Appetites were satisfied, and a newly crowned Boudin-Eating Champ walked the earth. Few kingdoms could provide so much.
Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival - Comus to Zulu by Errol Laborde is available at all area bookstores. Books can also be ordered via e- mail at email@example.com or (504) 895-2266.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. ON WYES-TV, CHANNEL 12.
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