Sunday, April 18, 2010
The Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival And Some Rumination on Southern Identity and Hipsters (Also Gumbo)
The Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival is a 30 year old and inexplicably ginormous festival, held smack-dab out in the swamps outside New Orleans. It is devoted (startlingly enough) to strawberries, strawberry flavored foods, swamp-type music, and the many exciting ways one might combine booze and the little red fruit into one exciting package. The clientele is, well, rural Louisiana.
Living in New Orleans and attending Tulane - a school whose student body is made up mostly of people from Long Island with fake tans and extremely white teeth - it's easy to forget that one resides in the South.
The South where people wear overalls un-ironically, baseball caps with Harley Davidson insignia on them, and purchase things like Confederate flag string bikinis. That variety of South. A King and a Queen of the Strawberry Festival are always appointed, ostensibly to promote healthy eating. Mostly to wear tiaras. There's a strawberry eating contest which I think I could have showed pretty well in, but we missed it.
My friends are hipsters and I am a hipster in a hipster tribe - we frequent hipster bars and go to hipster shows and sit around being Ironic Hipsters on campus, congratulating ourselves on how avant garde we are. Such is my lot, I've made my peace with it. But the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival functioned as a very needed reminder that an entire universe of totally unironic human beings is out there, people who really could not give two shits about noise music or the state of molecular gastronomy in Portugal or the best place one might acquire rare dub records from the late 1960's. And I am sort of glad that they exist.
There were chocolate covered strawberries everywhere at the festival, and it seemed like people from miles and miles away had flocked here to sell their particular variant on the theme. The chocolate covered strawberry is ultimately one of mankind's better culinary ideas. There was also strawberry, tutti-frutti, and cotton candy flavored popcorn on sale. Which tasted aggressively chemical, but perhaps you're into that kind of thing.
Be it known that I am Southern, was born in Florida (this mostly counts) and am descended from people from Louisiana, Kentucky, and North Carolina. That I can mock the South and associated people because such materials are what I am sprung from, that (really) any superiority complex I might have needs to be amended by reality. People shall have their ATV's and tremendous smokers, and I will try to judge them minimally. (My father has a very large BBQ smoker in the backyard which probably makes him think of the Smokie mountains and addresses some primal need within his soul. We can never totally escape ourselves). Is the disclaimer I am adding here.
We sampled Italian Jambalaya from these nice people with their big old rice pot, and it was awfully good.
The usual stuff prepared with Italian sausage, sun dried tomato, mushrooms and artichoke hearts, just right. New Orleans has a strong Italian tradition and such melding of cuisine is pretty much standard issue: more power to them.
This gumbo was only acceptable. Had a nice dense flavor with lots of okra but there just wasn't enough stuff in it: seafood gumbo needs to have more going on then just some anemic shrimp.
Strawberry daiquiris were sweet and highly rum-infused. Everyone was drinking them out of what appeared to be buckets. It was hot outside. I had some delicious grilled corn with some cajun seasoning on it and it stuck in my teeth for a day but I didn't mind. There was an unimpressive prime-rib sandwich and some satisfying strawberry shortcake. No one could summon up the bravery required for the deep-fried strawberries. Charbroiled oysters were deemed uniquely tempting but ultimately unwise in 80 degree and humid weather. This was how it went.
Someone is making a mint off these.
Strawberry wine is promoted heavily at the Strawberry Festival and apparently tastes satanically evil, or that is what I figured out from hearing people talk about it. I guess you can draw your own conclusions.
There was quite a bit of music of the zydeco sort, played by big guys with beards and a Harley Davidson themed collective uniform. It was hot outside.
These two had it figured out.
As we left the festival, we walked down the road to where we had parked our car, a good half mile or so from the center of town and the center of activity. Strawberry stands had been set up all along this path, and we all determined we didn't want to carry a large flat of strawberries the whole back to the car. One seller assured us that the strawberries further back were disgusting and heinous and that we should buy from him, it was worth carrying his fine and delicious strawberries the whole back to our car.
We ignored him and kept on walking.
"There won't be any strawberries to buy," one member of our group said. She was gently ignored.
We keep on walking. The strawberry vendors slowly begin to peter out. The berries grow more and more anemic looking. The aggrieved member of our party begins to grow visibly distressed - and the car is spotted, and we've bought no strawberries. "Just over there," someone says, "There's someone selling them. Everything is saved." (Growled, a bit).
And we walk over.
"Are those Ponchatoula strawberries?"
"No, ma'am. They grown a parish over, but they just as good." A woman with cut-offs who looks far older then she probably actually is.
"But they're not Ponchatoula!" (Anguished voice).
"No, but they good," the seller insists.
"We'll have to buy them. We won't have bought any strawberries if we don't." (This said with some firmness. No one can say otherwise. Or dares). So we buy them, a big old flat.
And what do you know, we drive about four minutes and there's someone selling PONCHATOULA STRAWBERRIES, a big old sign. The real thing.
"We have to buy another flat!"
We do. The Real Actual Ponchatoula Strawberries are judged to be (in muted, slightly horrified tones) to not be noticeably better then the now disfavored One-County-Over-Berries. It is rather as if an edifice has been toppled. More importantly: there are tons of strawberries in the back seat, there are more berries then can be believed, we will be eating strawberries until we all are dead and no more.
This I do not mind.
I brought strawberries and cereal to lunch every single day this week. And I did not regret it or mind it in the slightest. I could not differentiate between Ponchatoula Strawberries and next parish over impostors. Both were adequately delicious.