Culinary Classic: snoball, by Julie Conquest.
Not A Food Festival
The Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival is not a “food festival” in the way those events are often construed today, full of TV chefs and pop-up restaurants and brands and small bites and flavor innovations and foodie swag. Perhaps this is why, when we talked to nearly any non-Louisianan about going to the festival, they responded with some form of ew, an expression of mild disgust at the cognitive dissonance between a food product and the oil industry. People’s immediate reaction was that petroleum, that big downer, had no business at a food festival. Mix in the widely held cultural notion that Louisiana food is delicious and add in a dash of “those people” judgment holding that deep southerners broadly and Louisianans specifically might have laxer standards for food purity. Or, even worse, that they had forgotten the proper southern food–adjacent oil was butter or lard. Petroleum is, simply, the wrong kind of oil. It’s the kind of oil we don’t like to think about. It’s the kind of oil that is completely embedded into our food and its packaging and its distribution systems but that makes it the kind of oil we don’t like to be reminded of.
And while there is an abundance of food at the festival, it is primarily an industry festival. The queens represent industries, food as commodities. So while the food is a huge draw for both the formal, royalty-oriented festival events and the informal, diversely attended festival events, it is not, contrary to what we expected, the point—a fact that makes the junction between shrimp and petroleum less dissonant. The petroleum piece of the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival is, of course, its raison d’être; it is the festival’s financial underwriting and the town’s main industry. Its centrality is evident in the event’s logo, which features a bright pink shrimp in a yellow hard hat wrapped around an oil derrick, as in the flower arrangement we encountered in the Festival Headquarters. This logo is visible on the giant banners that flank the music stage and on posters and signs on the festival grounds. Necklaces with shrimp beads and oil derrick beads were a prized catch at the parade, where you could also snag candy and plastic cups as they were thrown from the passing floats.
The embrace between shrimp and oil in the festival logo is appropriate, even if many would prefer not to consider the intimacy of food and energy. Oil goes all the way down our food system: it’s in the tanks of the vehicles that deliver our food from where it was grown or raised to where we eat it, of course, but it’s also in the vehicles that prepare the soil and harvest the food, it’s in the plastic components of those vehicles, it’s in fertilizers and pesticides, it’s in industrial machinery, it’s in packaging, and its residues are present in human bodies. Oil makes the global food industry possible. It’s also highly polluting. The Shrimp and Petroleum Festival isn’t interested in making this point, but it wasn’t lost on us as we sampled foods from the Culinary Classic and carnival booths, where the oil on most people’s plastic plates was canola.
If we are honest about how food grows and gets to every plate, every “food and wine” festival could rightly be a “food, wine, and petroleum” festival.
If we are honest about how food grows and gets to every plate, every “food and wine” festival could rightly be a “food, wine, and petroleum” festival. But the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival isn’t primarily a food festival. Each and every queen who represents her festival on the circuit can rattle off a long list of statistics and factoids about the economic impact of her town’s agriculture. And while food festivals increasingly include information about where their ingredients come from, few would be caught honoring “Big Ag” corporations, technologized growing practices, and large-scale commodification.
From Shrimp On a Cupcake to Meat On a Stick
The Shrimp and Petroleum Festival may not be a traditional food festival, but there is a vast array of food to purchase once you’re there. The food areas of the festival occupy three separate zones: one includes the neighborhood establishments of Morgan City itself; a second is the Carnival Zone under the highway overpass, where mobile food businesses contract with the city to rent space and sell their food items for profit during—but otherwise unconnected to—the festival; and the third is called the Culinary Classic, which is supported by the festival and takes the form of an avenue of temporary kitchens set up inside the festival area. Each kitchen is staffed by volunteers for local charities, which apply for a spot to prepare and sell food to benefit their causes. The Culinary Classic stretches an entire city block, a veritable tent city run by a volunteer army, cooking away as the heat of the afternoon gives way to the humid sheen of the evening. It reveals the shrimp-laden, oil-frying beating heart of local St. Mary Parishioners.
These three zones offer a master class on establishing and breaking down stereotypes of coastal Louisiana food. Our first night in town, we stuffed ourselves at Rita Mae’s, a black-owned restaurant whose menu reflected a classic array of hearty, spicy rice-based stews. Shrimp, crawfish, and catfish were the mainstay proteins. Po’ boys, gumbo, jambalaya, and étouffée were the flavor vehicles, and okra made an expected and delicious appearance. This was food that fit comfortably within our understandings of “coastal Louisiana cuisine” or “traditional Louisiana food.”
Walking the stretch of the festival’s Culinary Classic is an education in community-building in Morgan City and why making and selling food is integral to the missions of local charitable organizations. From the Lions to the American Legion to private donors, churches, and school groups, each tent had its own way of blending its community mission with a particular food identity. This stretch also highlighted Lonnie Gray’s assertion that the festival has made room for multiple Louisiana cultures. The multiracial, multiethnic volunteer staffs were a stark contrast to the royalty events. One tent, decorated in Mardi Gras colors, served Creole food staples, much like Rita Mae’s. Their jambalaya was transporting. A few tents riffed on the shrimp theme, including tasty fried bacon–wrapped shrimp nuggets from the Lions and a mean shrimp pie at a stall promising Czech Cajun cuisine. The proprietors told us about how their Cajun ancestors married Czechs who got Cajun-ified within two generations. One stall dominated the dessert game with New Orleans–style snoballs, the absurdly sweet concoction made with condensed milk. Perhaps the most surprising crowd favorite, however, and the one that we couldn’t leave the festival without trying, were the burgers from the local Catholic high school stand. Many folks told us it was their favorite festival food. A burger? At the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival? Smothered in caramelized onions and nacho cheese, it was exceptional.