Forecasters in the north still are posting occasional frost warnings and it’s not yet time for Alaska to be awash in wildflowers, but the thawing’s nearly complete. Winter’s gone. Folks are out and about and, in the South, we’ve arrived at the very heart of festival season.
In Texas, Bluegrass and Bluebonnets already has taken place. In Louisiana, the Acadian Festival in St. Martinsville, the Bayou Teche Bear Festival and the Balfa Cajun/Creole Heritage Week are pleasant memories. Still to come are assorted strawberry festivals, New Orleans’ Creole Tomato Festival, the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles in Lafayette, Church Point’s Buggy Fest and one of the best combinations of food and music in the world, the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival.
Events like last weekend’s Mullet Toss at the Flora-Bama Lounge, a well-known establishment on the Alabama-Florida state line, play to a slightly different crowd. While there’s just as much music and food, there’s often a good bit more liquor and a good bit less clothing. Crowds are friendly at the Flora-Bama, but they’re not necessarily family-friendly, if you get my drift.
On the other hand, the Flora-Bama Mullet Toss shares some qualities common to other festivals. All tend to be historically-rooted and marked by a high level of community involvement. They support community causes, raise money for local organizations and provide inexpensive fun. Like State Fairs and the Fourth of July, they’re as American as apple pie.
One of the earliest spring gatherings is the Rabbit Festival in Iowa (pronounced Io-WAY), Louisiana. In 1986, the town made a decision to promote the only rabbit processing plant in the area; the first festival was held in 1987. There was a small rabbit show, a parade, craft sellers and a few bands playing from the back of a flatbed trailer. The highlight, of course, was the crowning of Miss Bunny, whose primary responsibility was to travel around Louisiana promoting the festival.
In time, the processing plant went out of business but the festival continued to grow. The rabbit cookoff gained a certain fame, and more well-known musicians were booked. The growth and changes landed the festival on various travel listings, and Iowa’s pride in its event increased accordingly.
When a friend read about the festival, she was tempted by the thought of the rabbit cook-off and suggested we make the trip. She’d been raised with rabbit on the table from time to time, enjoyed it, and insisted the opportunity to eat rabbit stewed, roasted, sauced, fried, boudin-ed and gumbo-ed wasn’t to be missed.
I’d never eaten rabbit, but some equally tasty music was being served up. Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys would be there, along with Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie. If the price of admission to hear those musicians was going to include hanging out with an assortment of rabbits, so be it. Another friend, a native Louisianan who still lapses into Cajun French from time to time, declared we should “Laissez les grand lapins rouler!” His version of the familiar “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” translates roughly, “Let the big bunnies roll!” And so we did.
On Saturday morning, we didn’t mind missing the rabbit show put on by the Acadiana Area Rabbit Breeders’ Association – there was too much good food to sample and too many interesting people to meet. The folks who set up this chuck wagon took first place in the decorating category, but their roasted rabbit-on-a-spit was equally impressive.
A group of LSU grads may have been doing rabbit fricassee, a sauce piquant or even a stew, but at their tent it was conversation that took the prize. All had been deeply affected by last year’s flooding on the Mississippi. Some were involved with post-flood projects in the Atchafalaya Basin. Reading about the flood and following its path from a distance is one thing. Listening to people rooted in the area and dedicated to its preservation reflect on their own experience is something else entirely.
Last year’s winner in the appetizer category was back for a repeat performance. The boudin balls were delicious, but competition was fierce. In the end, I think the folks in the chuck wagon ran over them, winning with a little concoction of rabbit, onion, jalapeno and cheese served on roasted potato slices.
By the time the judging was complete, we’d eaten our fill and were ready to find a shady spot in the pavilion. Steve Riley and his Mamou Playboys are a big draw, and it was fun to speculate about the various groups who’d come to see them. Grammy-nominated for their new CD, Grand Isle, the group’s as friendly and approachable as any in the business, and they clearly enjoy their rapport with their audience.
Cajun or Zydeco, the music’s infectious and made for dancing. Grandmothers and grandfathers are just as likely to be on the floor as the young ones, and toddlers too young to follow along “dance” in their parents’ arms. Young girls partner with one another, couples with years of partnership behind them astonish the watching crowd, and even those with no partner at all are free to let the music move them, in whatever way seems best.
In the end, the Rabbit Festival turned out to be nothing more – and nothing less – than an opportunity for nice people to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of life. Gathered under the spreading oaks, a group of women argued over the best recipe for rabbit sauce piquant. Moving in time with Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, an irrepressible couple swirled past awkward, tentative beginners, bubbling over with laughter and good-natured advice. “Stop counting!” they shouted over the music. “Just dance!”
And everywhere, people smiled at rabbits – live rabbits, cartoon rabbits, cooked rabbits and at least one costumed rabbit who decided to doff his hot, fuzzy-eared head and quaff a beer or two. In the parking lot behind the pavilion, a gaggle of Queens unpinned their tiaras and sashes and compared their plans for the evening.
As the afternoon trees dappled the sunlight , the Mamou Playboys thanked the crowd, shook a few hands and began thinking about their next gig. Families reunited for the long trek back to their cars, cooking pots were cleaned, sound crews started prepping for the evening’s concert and souvenir-sellers tipped back their chairs, content to call it a day.
Near the entrance, one last buyer cuddled her purchase – a brown and white rabbit with silky brown ears. When I stopped to admire the wriggling bit of fluff wrapped tight in her arms, she looked up with a smile brighter than bunny eyes. “Is that yours?” I asked. “Uh-huh,” she said. “I just got him.” “Does he have a name yet?” “I dunno. Maybe. I might call him Sam.”
She looked me over, appraising me as only a child can. “You wanna hold him?” Of course I did. On the other hand, I wasn’t willing to spend the rest of the afternoon trying to run down an escaped rabbit. “Why don’t you hold him, and I’ll just pet him?” “OK,” she said.
The rabbit seemed happy to have his ears rubbed, and the circle of kids surrounding us seemed happy to watch. After a minute, I told her I had to leave because my own friends were waiting. “OK,” she said, nuzzling the rabbit. As I turned to go, she asked my opinion. “What would you name him?” “I think Sam’s a pretty good name,” I said, “but he’ll let you know if it’s right.”
Remembering the Rabbit Festival today – the food, the friendliness, the American-as-apple-pie atmosphere – there’s a lot that feels right. And the little girl’s choice of “Sam” for her rabbit’s name seems especially apt. If she keeps the name, she may someday realize her silky, squirmy souvenir bears the same name as our nation’s “Uncle” Sam – a choice every bit as tasty as a bite of American pie.