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The Brotherhood of the Black Pot
In the kitchen of any self-respecting south Louisianan, one can expect to find a number of utensils among its array: a wooden spoon exclusively for making the roux, a large rice cooker and the ubiquitous Magnalite roaster; all essential tools for making a roast duck, sauce piquante or jambalaya. The one that probably elicits the greatest nostalgia for those who like me grew up in one of those kitchens is just as heavy symbolically as physically. We all probably have childhood memories of fish, chicken or bread dough frying in a cast iron skillet and the smells associated with them. If the metaphor for our culture is gumbo, the black cast iron pot is the vessel through which it is begotten.
The proper maintenance of the cast iron pot solicits opinions as diverse as they are passionate. It is said that you should never use soap to clean it, only hot water. Some people advise rubbing it with sand. I asked a friend who is used to cooking industrial quantities of cracklins or jambalaya in his heavy black boiler on its way to keep it clean. In response, he showed me a bottle of dishwashing liquid that he would pour into the pot when finished cooking. I have often tasted his food and I find no residual taste, but I understand that purists will continue to ban all forms of soap. The real trick, he says, is to rub the iron with cooking oil after cleaning it and heat it well before starting to burn impurities. It is a way to respect the black pot as it should, without letting it rust.
If we love something enough in Acadiana, we will give it a festival. According to tradition in autumn, we celebrate a wide variety of foods more or less at harvest time. The towns are closely identified with their festivals. Crowley and rice, Chackbay and gumbo or New Iberia and sugar cane testify to our eagerness to reward a job well done and to play with the same fervor. That said, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I know of no other festival dedicated to a separate kitchen utensil other than the Blackpot Festival in Lafayette late October. In a few years — this year is its 11th edition — the festival stands out from the others in many respects thanks to the vision of its founders and the merry band of friends, musicians, dancers and chefs surrounding them. To say that Blackpot is not like the others does not even begin to describe its originality.
The genesis of the festival was a mixture of influences merging around members of the legendary Red Stick Ramblers with folk musician Jay Ungar as a catalyst. When Ramblers told him how much they appreciated his cultural camp, Ashokan where many Louisiana artists have played, the famous violinist challenged them to start their own festival. Almost by spontaneous combustion they came up with the idea to call it Blackpot and dish began to simmer. Since then, a meeting of traditional American music, from bluegrass to gospel, and Louisiana music with dance and cooking à la sauce young Louisiana, has created a unique festival. We have cooking competitions that feature music and we have music festivals with cooking competitions on the side. The originality of Blackpot is to create a space where you can combine music, dance and cuisine but also where you can camp out or learn to play with masters in their art. Several participants remain near their tent to make their own music around the fire, eating potluck. The Blackpot Festival has found a unique niche in a calendar full of festivals. With all this creative youth bustling around, the cast iron pot is in no risk of getting rusty anytime soon.