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 10 -12 this year), the town celebrates its annual Cochon de Lait festival. Several ago, while driving up La. Highway One, 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 the Louisiana town’s namesake, El Mansura, Egypt. Napoleonic soldiers 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 fund-raisers 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 building called the Cochon de Lait Center and a permanent roasting area. If the traffic and the balloons along the highway are not enough of a sign 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 are 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 comes at noon Saturday when the serving began for cochon de lait and pork jambalaya. When I was there, 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 several 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, the 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.
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