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  • Pageants, Po' Boys, and Pork on a StickDocumenting the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival
  • Emily Roehl (bio) and Jeannette Vaught (bio)

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Shrimp and derrick, by Emily Roehl.

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Traveling down to the Gulf in Louisiana is like watching intricate sand patterns dissolve in the tide, land slowly giving way to water. Water is everywhere: along the side of the road, under the overpass, hanging in the sky.

Three of us were together in a car hurtling by this watery landscape. Emily Roehl, an artist and oil scholar, had long wanted to visit one of Louisiana's premiere oil events for a research project. Julie Conquest, an artist and photographer, was game to shoot photographs. And Jeannette Vaught came on the project to gather audio interviews and oral histories with support from nonprofit organizations Foodways Texas and the Southern Foodways Alliance. We all drove from Austin to Morgan City over Labor Day Weekend 2017 in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which had devastated southeastern Texas just days before, to document the 82nd Annual Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. The forecast for coastal Louisiana was iffy, and we anxiously checked the festival website for news of cancellation. We'd joined the panicking people at gas stations in Austin the night before we left, and we'd lengthened our drive considerably by going north from Austin to Shreveport and then dropping down to St. Mary Parish—a good ten hours. Interstate 49 from Shreveport to Lafayette floated uncertainly above floodwaters and looked more like a causeway than a broad, 245-mile interstate highway. We arrived at our hotel in Patterson in the hazy late afternoon, and piled back into the car for the drive to Morgan City shortly after. The festival was on, and we were giddy enough from making the trip after all that worry and all that water to propel us into Friday night.

The Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival was founded in Morgan City in 1936. It was originally called the Shrimp Festival, a name it maintained until 1967, when "Petroleum" was added. The name change was "overdue," according to then-president Robert M. Williams: "For the past decade or more, men and women of the oil, gas and boat industries have worked shoulder to shoulder with shrimp and fishing industries and other townspeople in staging the Festival." Since 1952, the festival has been celebrated over Labor Day weekend and is just one of hundreds of harvest and commodity festivals that take place across the state of Louisiana during the year. A study completed by the Hospitality Research Center at the University of New Orleans estimated that, in 2014, over 140,000 people attended the five-day event, with an overall economic impact of $8.5 million.1

The 2017 festival got off to a soggy start; the music stage and Culinary Classic food vendors had to be moved out of Lawrence Park and onto the street because the festival organizers wanted to protect the grass. The traveling carnival rides, games, and food stalls that set up under the overpass remained dry, although in previous years the carnival area has flooded. As Hurricane Harvey pushed out [End Page 47] and the sun came out just in time to set on Friday evening, the festival's prospects were looking up.

What we found at the 2017 Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival was a tale of two festivals, not divided, as we had expected, along the odd juncture of shrimp and petroleum—but, rather, between the official festival, with its pageant queens and time-honored ceremonies, and the festival as it was enjoyed by the people of Morgan City and St. Mary Parish, which was a much more racially diverse and less scripted experience. We were there to conduct oral histories and take photographs, ostensibly to observe, but the overwhelming whiteness of the official festival made us all the more aware of our own whiteness and the near-absence of people of color in the festival's official events. The same was true of class; while both the shrimping and petroleum industries in southern Louisiana employ large numbers of working class laborers...