Steamboating in Columbia
On a natural crossing of the beautiful Ouachita River, the town of Columbia, seat of Caldwell Parish, was founded in 1827. The river is named for the Ouachita Native Indians; the word Washita is an Indian word that means “silver waters.” Indeed, the river, deemed among the most beautiful in the nation, frames the northeastern Louisiana landscape by separating the piney and rolling hill country on its western banks from the wetlands and delta farmlands on its eastern shores.
And at some point in the 1800s, Columbia became a bustling steamboating town with a front-row seat to Louisiana’s river history. To commemorate its rich heritage as a thriving river port where thousands of steamboats docked throughout the nineteenth and early 20th centuries, Columbia has staged the Riverboat Festival for the past 11 years. Called “Gateway to the Ouachita,” Columbia was a hub of travel and commerce on the beautiful sparkling waters that lasted nearly 100 years. The sound of a steamboat’s whistle or horn could draw people to the riverbanks in droves. The Monroe, the first steamboat to ever travel up the Ouachita, passed here – but only after it first traveled to New Orleans, where it promptly sank and was then raised. Though the steamboat was described to be as ugly as a monster upon its resurrection, the town of Monroe was named for it. While some of the riverboats were as beautiful as wedding cakes, they were still workhorses when it came to carrying cargo, bales of cotton and riverboat gamblers.
In 1866, a steamboat named the Edna exploded at Columbia; crewmen and debris were sent flying into the town’s streets over 500 feet away. Ten miles above Columbia, a haunting, awe-inspiring river landmark named Lone Bluff rises 100 feet above the river. At the top of the bluff, sheltered by venerable old pine trees, lies the unmarked grave of a young woman. Lone Bluff, made of red clay and sandstone, rises over a hole in the river at least 85 feet deep, the deepest to be found on the Ouachita. This river hole lies at the base of Lone Bluff on the junction where Lone Grave Bayou spills into the Ouachita. The grave atop the bluff is said to belong to a young wife of a plantation overseer who died early in their marriage from consumption. Before she died, she asked him to bury her there so she could watch over him and their home across the river.
The Riverboat Festival pulls out all the seacocks to do justice to the proper celebration of this heritage. Nor has it overlooked the heritage of river gambling on the Ouachita. As part of the festival, the Poker Run on the River, a family oriented event launches at the Main Street Dock and sails for 16 miles and 45 minutes. Participants enjoying a scenic river ride also play rounds of poker. Checkpoints for poker hands dot the river’s route where each player receives a card at each stop. The best hand at the end of the run wins a cash prize.
The streets of downtown Columbia will be filled with the sounds of live entertainment and lined by booths filled with food and arts and crafts. Carnival rides are there for the taking, and as a grand finale to an enjoyable day, the much-revered Rubber Duck Race will commence as hundreds of tiny rubber ducks are dropped from the Ouachita Bridge for a race to the finish line. Columbia Riverfest will take place May 17.
Les Cochons de Mansura
One of my early recollections of Mansura as a little girl on a visit was that everything in the town seemed to be named Roy. When Imitation of Life was re-released, I sat in the Roy Theatre sobbing along with the rest of the audience watching this tearjerker with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore. I seem to remember there was a hardware store also named Roy; there was a Teska Roy Lane and a Tony Roy Road, and it was Mayor Kirby Roy who petitioned Governor Earl K. Long to name Mansura le Capitale de la Cochon de Lait of the world after the blowout success of its first year back in 1960.
The celebration was actually held in 1960 to commemorate Mansura’s Centennial. Weeks prior to the fête, Mansura residents dressed in 1860s era-garb and traveled in bus caravans throughout the state to promote the celebration. They did their job very well – more than 10,000 people attended – Mansura’ population is under 2,000.
The Friday night before Mother’s Day, the street dance is held. I do have a magical memory from that first visit of dancing in the street under white lights strung across the way and then walking past a vacant lot filled with fireflies.
Mansura goes a little mad each Mother’s Day weekend in May with swine fever. In Avoyelles Parish, as a dining favorite, pigs rule, and the Cochon de Lait Festival fairly squeals when it comes to celebrating this porcine tradition. Thousands converge on the tiny town. Cooking this revered porker involves a precise method to obtain the maximum benefits of slow roasting it to succulent perfection. It’s a daylong affair.
The entire pig, minus head and hooves, is split but remains in one piece. After seasoning and scoring the skin, the pig is carefully pinned between two large sections of fencing wire. This rack containing the splayed cochon is then suspended outdoors in the large roasting shanties filled with pecan and hickory wood burning at a lazy pace. The aroma is unforgettable. The pig racks filling the shanty are slowly turned hour after hour until they render meat that could melt in your mouth with a crispy outer skin. Perfect side dishes include dirty rice made with hog liver, cochon de lait jambalaya, boudin and/or boudin balls.
This Central Louisiana festival resembles Mardi Gras in New Orleans when it comes to hilarity and fun. There’s a parade, featuring the lucky winner of the beauty pageant crowned, “Miss Cochon de Lait.” Carnival rides thrill the youngsters and their parents. Arts and Crafts and food booths abound, and cochon de lait jambalaya is ceremoniously served at noon on Saturday.
The organizers of the events for the festival outdid themselves – there is a Children’s Hog Calling Contest and an Adult’s Hog Calling Contest. Not only is there a Men’s Beer Drinking Contest, there is also a Ladies’ Beer Drinking Contest. Not to be missed are the Hog Imitation Mix Contest, the Boudin Eating Contest and the Greased Pig Contest.
The latter is geared to children and provides some of the biggest laughs of the entire weekend. The music of Geno Delafose and the French Rockin’ Boogie along with live local talent will keep everyone jumping. And like any good Catholic French community, the festival schedule also includes Mass at St. Paul’s Catholic Church on Saturday and Sunday. The festival goes from May 8-11.
Information, (318) 964-2152, cochondelaitfestival.com
STARKS CELEBRATES THE MAYHAW BERRY
With the rallying cry of “bring your lawn chair,” the Starks Business and Civic Association welcomes everyone to attend the 21st annual Starks Mayhaw Festival, May 15-17. The festival was born out of the community’s desire to promote a positive image of Starks, earn money for nonprofit groups and to gather the good citizens of the town together, along with any visitors who are fans of the glorious mayhaw.
The mayhaw berry springs from the graceful beauty of the hawthorne tree. Starks, located six miles from the Louisiana-Texas border and 30 miles from Lake Charles in Calcasieu Parish, is in an area where the hawthorne tree grows wild. Found in river bottoms and swamps, thorny and not overly tall, the hawthorne blooms with beautiful white flowers in the months of February and March. In recent times, a large number of the trees were transplanted into residential areas from the swamps. It was thus christened Mayhaw because the tree yields the delicious, small, ruby-colored berries from April to early May. When the berries ripen, gathering them is as simple as spreading a sheet, either cloth or plastic, on the ground below the tree and giving it a good shake. Some of the more time-venerable members of Starks have fond recollections of capturing mayhaws with a bucket as they floated on streams and bogs. The trees have been known to bear berries for as long as 50 years.
No one in Starks recommends store-bought mayhaw jelly. Homemade jelly is a must. Each year as part of the festival, a jelly contest is held, and in an area rife with delicious homemade mayhaw jelly, competition is keen. Each contestant must submit two jars of jelly to be judged on color, consistency and taste. This family-friendly fair allows no alcoholic beverages on the premises, and only animals trained to help the visually and hearing handicapped can set their paws on the fairway.
In addition to the bounteous presence of the mayhaw, the festival has a full spectrum of entertainment venues. Booths are filled with arts and crafts while children and young-at-heart-adults enjoy carnival rides. Local creativity is showcased and tested in the festival’s talent show. A festival parade, beauty pageant, auction and delicious food contribute to three wonderful days of good, old-fashioned enjoyment in a beautiful Louisiana spring.
On Friday night, May 16, the Grammy-nominated gospel group, The Bowling Family, will treat festivalgoers to a performance. This internationally renowned group had 23 No. 1 gospel songs, four of which came from one album, Faith to Believe. They have performed worldwide at places including Carnegie Hall and the Grand Ole Opry.
The mayhaw berry itself has numerous health benefits. Filled with the bioflavanoid named oligomeric procyanidins, it provides marked antioxidant activity that increases the elasticity of blood vessels; in turn, this has a beneficent influence on circulation, lowering blood pressure and reducing cholesterol levels. Some studies have shown that the mayhaw possibly improves the overall function of the heart in people who have already been diagnosed with heart failure. With its delicious taste and marked health benefits, the mayhaw berry is indeed worth celebrating – especially with a festival named in its honor.
Going Greek in Baton Rouge
In a tradition that’s graced the area for the past three years, once again the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church will sponsor the Baton Rouge Greek Festival. According to festival chairman, James Burland, this new festival has received a lot of influence from New Orleans’ own Greek Festival.
“We have a long history with helping the New Orleans festival, and we thought, why not try to start something up here to raise money for our local charities?” says Burland.
Holy Trinity Church in Baton Rouge first began as a mission church from the New Orleans Greek Orthodox Church and has now evolved into a cathedral. (One of the lovely practices of the Greek Orthodox Church is to call Mary, the Blessed Mother, Theotokos; the name being a combination of two Greek words, Θεός, meaning God, and τόκος, meaning parturition or childbirth. Literally the name means the one who gives birth to God.) The festival is held the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend. This year that puts it on May 10.
The Baton Rouge Greek Festival, Inc. is a nonprofit charity group. All proceeds from the festival are donated to local charities. This year activities will include a 5K toga run. Booths will feature the handiwork of participating vendors: lockets and charms from Geaux Origami; artwork by Stan Routh; Susan Rodrigue’s handmade pottery; women’s clothing, shoes and jewelry from Divinity Boutique; and organic seasonings from Wildtree.
There’s a beautiful abundance of Greek food, all produced by the willing hands and hard working members of the church. It’s suggested that you sip delicious Greek wines like rich, fruity red Agiorgitiko or white Malagousia with its jasmine and melon flavors while you sit on the lawn and watch the church workers grill the marinated lamb, chicken and pork souvlaki (kabobs) – while also preparing the gyro sandwiches.
The dishes offered at the fair are aromatic and mouthwatering. The grilled lamb chop plate is served with dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), salad, orzo, Grecian sauce and pita. The combo plate is filled with sliced lamb gyros, chicken marinated in Grecian sauce, pita bread, orzo and dolmades. Marinated grilled pork tenderloin wrapped in pita with Grecian sauce serves as a delicious Souvlaki Skewer while crisp seasoned fries are served topped with a velvety, creamy feta cheese sauce.
Greek traditional pastries are some of the most delicious to be enjoyed in the world, and the festival will be filled with baklava; kourambethes (which are similar to Mexican wedding cookies); koulourakia, small twisted butter cookies studded with sesame seeds over an egg-white glaze; and fenikia, cookies dipped in honey and covered with nuts. You may purchase boxes of these delights at the festival. If your conscience bothers you because of all the wine, hummus and gyros you’ve ingested, the day is filled with several opportunities to learn Greek dancing.
The Cultural Booth is a spot where you can learn more about the beautiful heritage of Greece and its Eastern Orthodox faith. Mediterranean arts and crafts, religious icons and T-shirts can also be purchased at the festival.
The sounds of Greek music, the spectacle of Greece’s cultural dances as well as the performance of belly dancers fill the Baton Rouge area with the joyful spirit of the Mediterranean.
Festivals were an ancient and revered practice in the history of Greece, producing a cultural impact still felt by the world to this day. A festival that honored Dionysos, held in ancient Athens, sported a competition between playwrights. Competitors included Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles, who gave us some of the best-written plays that are still performed today.
Oysters on the Riverfront
Woldenberg Park on the French Quarter riverfront will be the site of annual New Orleans Oyster Festival. In this particularly beautiful bend of the Mississippi, some of the finest restaurants in the area will provide the hoards hungry for this tasty bivalve with some righteous oyster eating: Acme Oyster House, Antoine’s, Andreas, Café Reconcile, Galatoire’s, Desire Oyster Bar, Drago’s, Jacque-Imo’s and GW Fins, to name a few. Whether you like crispy fried oysters cradled by toasted French bread slathered with butter along with a dash of hot sauce and ketchup; slurping down raw oysters on their pearly shells accompanied by lemon, hot sauce and a straight-up dry martini christened with just a splash of vermouth; or a poor boy filled with barbecued oysters, you’ll be in bivalve heaven.
Added to the fun of enjoying delicious food is live entertainment along with contests in the categories of oyster eating, oyster shucking and largest oyster. The festival takes place May 31-June 1.
Turning New Leaves
New Orleans Historic Homes is a book filled with photographs and stories of time-honored dwelling places in the Crescent City from different eras and areas, with various architectural styles. These homes are renovated and decorated by people who express their own magical artistry. Luckily, the stories of the homes and their owners have been written by someone who recognizes the spirit of New Orleans as well as a proprietor’s individual expression. Author and Louisiana Life contributor Bonnie Warren does just that. Forty historic homes from areas such as Bayou St. John; faubourgs Bouligny, Hurstville and Marigny; Bywater; Pigeon Town; Central Business District; the French Quarter; Uptown and more are showcased in the book. Interspersed in the history of each home are stories from the owners, who relate the emotional value they have for their home.
Warren respectfully and wisely lets each whimsical story tell itself.
With evocative photography from award-winning photojournalist Cheryl Gerber, and under the inspired art direction of Eric Gernhauser, New Orleans Historic Homes emerges as a treasure. The first thing I wanted to do when I finished poring over its sumptuous photographs and reading its rich text was to paint, but not walls – I wanted to set up my easel, brushes, oils and go swirling at a canvas, something that usually only happens to me after I’ve spent the day in the French Quarter or sightseeing up and down the River Road. The book is a wealth of vivid color, almost a metaphor for the unique culture of the Crescent City itself.
Pictured within its pages are the whimsical exteriors and interiors of charming gingerbread houses; the stately neutral grandeur of the Garden District; a bedroom with walls made of naked bargewood; a Central Business District townhouse with an exquisite hand-painted wall mural showing Jackson Square in 1803 when the American flag was first raised over Louisiana; the view from Tennessee Williams’ former upper gallery overlooking the French Quarter and a homeowner who begins her day there with a cup of coffee and ends it there at night with a glass of wine.
It did not escape my notice that while the Garden District homes kept to a neutral color palette to offset their antiques and treasures, homes in the Faubourgs, Bywater, Bayou St. John, Mid-City, University Area, Central Business District and French Quarter seemed inhabited by dwellers who were wonderfully unafraid of color. These homes were filled with vibrant reds, greens, eggplants, terracotta and blues with artwork and treasures interspersed within, and frequently captured trotting through the lush beauty were glimpses of the families’ resident canine (and no doubt the ruler of the house).
Warren has captured the voices and style of people who love history enough to preserve it and also add their own expression. Gerber’s photography perfectly validates her words. New Orleans Historic Homes is an enchanting invitation for an armchair tour of some of the Crescent City’s loveliest homes and to meet their imaginative owners.