I had watched the Cajun dance steps and listened to the zydeco music for about 8 hours when it finally occurred to me what I had to do; I needed to learn to dance. After watching the fast, catchy style of music for so long, I desperately wanted to know how 20 or so folks were moving so smoothly in unison to the beat, each with his or her own embellishing style.
I was in Fredericksburg, Texas, for the town’s annual crawfish festival, and I had already learned the proper way to eat a crawfish, what the best gumbo tasted like, and the history of zydeco music.
Now, being able to move to the music – at least to me – would be the culmination of fully experiencing a rural community’s annual Cajun celebration; the consummate rural festival and celebration.
A day earlier, May 22, I had arrived in downtown Fredericksburg at about 9 p.m., the smell of sausage and seafood pulling at my impulsive taste buds and enticing me to buy a pound of crawfish for $6 at Bob Neutze’s vending booth. After I had one of the vendors show me how to pinch off the tail, suck the juice out of the head and peel the lower portion of the crustaceans’ shell off to extricate the meat, I had the best crawfish I tasted all weekend. The spicy seafood appealed to my taste for all things with a bit of a gamey, spicy taste.
“I cook it with tender loving care,” Bob says. “We try to season them up. To me, as far as crawfish goes, if you eat more than two or three and don’t need something to drink, they’re not cooked right.”
James, Bob’s son, chimed in, saying that Creole seasoning (to spice the crawfish up) and about a pound of butter per boil (to help the meat slide out of the exoskeleton) are two key points to the Neutze crawfish mastery.
What stood out the most during that weekend in Fredericksburg was the amount of old-fashioned Southern hospitality compacted in the heart of Texas Hill Country that made a Kansas man feel at ease, even one who’s never danced to or tasted Cajun flavor before.
For one weekend, around 6,000 people flocked to the courtyard of Fredericksburg, a town of between 9,000 and 10,000 people, to celebrate Southern culture and one subculture of rural America; and it was a beautiful thing, the focal point of which was the large, seldom-empty dance floor.
“We try to hire good music, good Cajun music, and then we blend in two country Western talents, one Friday night and one Saturday night, and that seems to be a good combination,” says Debbie Farquhar-Garner, fest coordinator. “And the two crawfish booths that we have have, over the years, continued to improve their crawfish.”
Several vendors made the rural town their home for the weekend as well, selling everything from cowboy hats to all-wood wind chimes and other welcome signs for the farm, sold by Jim and Pam Fullingim.
“There’s just more people here (than other crawfish fests they attend),” says Jim. “We love Fredericksburg. We just like the Hill Country, we love it. And we love the little kids and all of that; the people.”
The vending business started out as a hobby for the Fullingims, a way to travel around their home state while making a bit of money. However, with the success of their wooden craft sales, the hobby has evolved into a small business that will be their main focus once they retire. The growing popularity of country festivals like Fredericksburg’s provides the perfect opportunity to grow their business while enjoying a rural atmosphere.
One reason this festival in particular continues to grow is because it offers something other crawfish fests don’t; a gumbo cook-off in a traditionally German, sausage-loving community. One team, Wantsumeaux Gumbeaux, used local sausage from Opa’s Smoked Meats, a local company. Before the cook-off even began, they invited me into their aromatic tent, simply to shoot the breeze and satisfy their curiosity about what I thought so far of the cook-off and festival. The festival-goers loved Wantsumeaux Gumbeaux’s gumbo, too, and they took the tasters’ choice award voted on by the public.
The winning gumbo – as voted on by the judges – was made by the father-and-son team of Greg and Austin Schneider, appropriately named Crawdaddy (Greg) and Baby Crawfish. It was the duo’s first time competing in a gumbo cook-off, and they used a meaty combination of crawfish, crab, shrimp, jalapeño sausage and Andouille sausage to win over the judges’ taste buds.
With gumbo, the roux –the soupy portion of the stew that is cooked, slowly, before adding the other ingredients – is the most important part. About 70 percent of the finished product is attributed to the quality of the roux, according to Greg, and he was reluctant to share his “secret roux.” But sharing it with others, once it was cooked, along with the pride and camaraderie of competing with his son, was his favorite part of his first competitive gumbo cook-off.
Loving the pork-heavy finished product, I agreed with the judges’ decision.
Still others at the fest, like Lois Bass and Thomas Grossman, a couple from San Antonio, came for the Cajun music more than the tasty seafood delicacies.
“When you go to a regular country concert,” Lois says, “you can’t dance. They’re too crowded.”
“That’s why we don’t go to concerts,” Thomas adds. “Outdoor fans are dance fans. We love to dance, and that’s why we come here.”
And, as I found myself seated at a table talking to arguably the smoothest dancers among the crowd, I worked up the courage and asked.
“You look at us dancing out there, you might think it’s difficult, but it’s really not,” Thomas told me. “We’ve added little flourishes to it, because we’ve been doing it so long, but the basic step is very simple.”
Without hesitation, he started the step, four steps to each side, following the bass guitar and looking at my feet. I followed suit, and was soon out on the floor with Lois, looking down at my feet trying not to mess up, learning from a kind, talented, understanding woman who couldn’t help but smile at my caution; just what you would expect from a Southern lady sharing country traditions.
As far as a getaway destination for the rustic type, I’m convinced Texas Hill Country crawfish festivals are right in line with what most people would like.
-- For information on next year’s crawfish festival visit the official
Fredericksburg Crawfish Festival website
Assistant Editor Caleb Regan grew up in southeast Kansas, where crawfish are known as crawdads.
Caleb Regan and his wife, Gwen, live in rural Douglas County, Kansas, where they enjoy hunting, fishing, and raising and growing as much of their own food as they can. Caleb can’t imagine a better scenario than getting to work on a rural lifestyle magazine as a profession, and then living that same lifestyle right in the heartland of America. Connect with him on Google+.