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NOLA fest culture: Not just another carnival

With New Orleans fest season in full swing, I’m reminded that festivals in this city are not, as they might be in other cities, merely carnivals. No, in New Orleans, festing is a way of life: Trudging through muddy grounds in rain boots that should have been retired to the back of your closet two months prior. Maneuvering a po boy around rows of pivoting shoulders, barreling children, and outstretched cords and tent legs. Becoming best friends with the folks you arbitrarily set your lawn chairs next to -- worst enemies, if you happened to plop down beside neighbors with strong feelings about your feet touching the edges of their tarp. The ever-frustrating port potty situation. Sweating profusely in near 100-degree weather, or being soaked in a spring shower, which -- either way-- you brush off, like all professional festers do. The site of empty crawfish shells, grease-stained butcher paper, and empty styrofoam daiq cups littering the ground, signifying the completion of yet another successful festival endeavor.

Only in Louisiana do you find "royalty" wearing jewel-encrusted shrimp and oil rig crowns.

Only in Louisiana do you find "royalty" wearing jewel-encrusted shrimp and oil rig crowns.

A few years ago, when I moved to New Orleans, my introduction to the city was, rather serendipitously, the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Fest. What better a way to encapsulate Lousiana culture than in an entire festival devoted to petroleum and shrimp (though I hoped the two would not be combined in abominable activity and food mashups), right?

To this Northeasterner, the concept of festival seemed -- until I’d experienced a fest in Louisiana -- synonymous with a carnival, artsier maybe. But carnivals are kitschy and, as evinced by my introduction to the Louisiana counterpart, our festivals are anything but.

I expected, at this Petroleum and Shrimp Fest, I'd find a glorified version of Mardi Gras: hurricanes, funnel cakes, beads, rowdy 20-somethings. When I met the queen, glamorously adorned in a crown that consisted of a jewel-encrusted shrimp strung through an oil rig, I realized this might not be the case.

"Where the hell have you taken me? Is this a real place?" I asked my local friend and tour guide.

"Morgan City, Louisiana. And, yes," she answered.

"Toto, we are not at a northern carnival anymore," I thought to myself.

But I would not have had it any other way. The Shrimp and Petroleum Fest was, truly, everything a Louisiana festival should be: eccentric, random, intermingling.

The crowd consisted of everything from Croc-clad families to polo'd college kids to men with long, scraggly pony tails and tattoos abounding. It was precisely this mix of people that made the festival memorable to me. Social and aesthetic boundaries collapsed as we all ate, drank, danced, and celebrated -- together. Without the characters that brought offbeat nuances of color to the festival, I likely would have filed the entire event into a dark carnival cabinet.

I quickly learned this festival was, in fact owned by Morgan City, literally making it a way of life for residents. In that, I find a sense of pride and, consequently, a reason to support the smaller festivals that proclaim: "I am from Louisiana and I am proud of our petroleum and shrimping industries!" The festivals throughout the state are not held not simply because of economic or tourism or publicity related reasons, but because celebration of Louisiana culture and people is at the crux of how we live, work, and play. It's how we convene.

While most are familiar with the larger festivals that draw big names and even bigger crowds -- like Jazzfest, Voodoo Fest, or French Quarter Fest -- yes, certainly attend, but I urge you to venture outside your typical fest comfort zone pack up a cooler, and head to one of the quirkier festivals.

Though the fests are numerous, we have compiled a list of our favorite under-the-radar festivals through the next six weeks:

March 22-23: Jane Austen Festival: From a Looking for Mr. Darcy contest to a Perfect Love Letter competition, the Mandeville fest has something for every Jane Austen book worm.

March 20-30: Food Fest: A laid-back food-centric gathering of homestyle eateries from all over the South in the French Market.

April 3-6: Paddle Bayou Lafourche: Make up for the bowls of Crawfish Monica, fried shrimp po boys, and grilled oysters by getting yourself moving in the 4-day, 52-mile boating trip -- participants can choose their days and hours.

April 11-13: Cajun Hot Sauce Festival: For the person who douses everything in Crystal; you know who you are. It's time to branch out.

April 26-27: Angola Prison Rodeo: A controversial cornerstone of Louisiana's festivals featuring inmates participating in rodeo events.

May 2-4: Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival: Because we can all use more crawfish.

Tulane senior Maria Elena Smith is half Irish, half Italian and wholly New Orleanian. She is also an editorial intern at NolaVie. Email her [email protected]