Why would Charleston host a Cajun festival? After all, it’s a culture that’s based 800 miles away in the heart of southern Louisiana.
If you go
What: Lowcountry Cajun FestivalWhen: Noon-6 p.m. SundayWhere: James Island County Park, 871 Riverland DrivePrice: $10; free for ages 12 and under with a paying adult; Gold Pass holders also get in for free For more info: 795-4386 or www.ccprc.com/cajun
On the other hand, why not?
The histories of the two places are not so dissimilar. When the British expelled 11,500 French Acadian settlers from coastal Canada in 1755, most made their way to the Bayou State, but 942 settlers established their new home in South Carolina, blending in with the French Huguenots already here. Charleston’s French ancestry is still present in the peninsula’s churches and streets around the French Quarter.
Of course, the Cajun culture that emerged in Louisiana — full of rich food, fiddle music and a distinct French dialect — was one far different from the French influence of Charleston, where most integrated into the British Colonial customs. But that shared ancestry is as fine an excuse as any to suck a few (or 50) crawfish heads and two-step the afternoon away to a zydeco beat.
“Alligator Jack” Sheffield is kidding around when he proclaims, “I am the Cajun Festival.”
He’s less apologetic when boasting about his crawfish eating record: 21 of the red crustaceans in just 30 seconds. Even that is nothing compared to the guy he met at his family reunion back home in Louisiana this year, who stormed his way through 55 pounds of crawfish in 45 minutes.
A Baton Rouge native, Sheffield moved to Charleston for culinary school and stuck around, opening Alligator Jack’s Cajun Cafe in Mount Pleasant before moving on to the catering business he operates today.
“I got my nickname because I grew up hunting and trapping alligators,” Sheffield explains. “I was only supposed to stay up here for a year, and that’s turned into 24 years.”
The Lowcountry Cajun Festival gives Sheffield a chance to show Charleston a taste of his life back home. When the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission first called him in 1991 about organizing and cooking for a Cajun-themed festival, he immediately jumped on board.
“I grew up doing what we do here next Sunday,” said Sheffield, referencing the sprawling tables of crawfish and bowls of jambalaya and etouffee he’ll be cooking by the gallon. “Through those first few years, this festival probably lost money, but now it’s the biggest one-day money maker for the park system of the year.”
Sheffield is correct in that assertion, confirms CCPRC Festival and Event Manager Matthew Rosebrock. Apart from the Holiday Festival of Lights, it’s also the oldest county park event, along with the Latin American Festival held in October.
“At the time, the county parks tasked the recreation staff with starting up new programming, and everyone thought a Cajun festival would be a good idea,” said Rosebrock, who looks forward all year to the chance to gorge on crawfish. “You don’t get to eat crawfish on a daily basis in Charleston, so I definitely pig out when the time comes.”
After holding steady at around 5,000 attendees for 15 years, the Cajun Festival has doubled in popularity since 2006, now attracting as many as 10,000 people.
It’s always held the Sunday after the Cooper River Bridge Run and concurrently with Summerville’s Flowertown Festival, creating a culmination to a celebratory weekend that effectively kicks off springtime in the Lowcountry.
Gary “Shrimp City Slim” Erwin has booked the music at the Cajun Festival for more than 15 years, bringing in famous Louisiana names including Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas and Chubby Carrier.
For this year’s 22nd annual event, Erwin took a different approach, choosing the bands around the theme of “Women of the Swamp.”
Opening the day at 1 p.m. is Shelly Waters, a recent transplant to the Lowcountry from Rayne, La., known as the “Frog Capital of the World.”
Waters met Erwin soon after her arrival in Charleston in late 2011, when she asked to sit in at a backyard party gig that Erwin was playing. The diva took the mic and thrilled the crowd, and she and Erwin have since collaborated on a debut release in her name titled “Swamp Pop Princess.”
“Swamp pop is a sometimes overlooked regional genre of Louisiana music that was prevalent in the late ’50s and early ’60s,” explains Erwin, who once hosted an S.C. public radio program on Creole, Cajun and zydeco music. “It’s a blend of old time rock ’n’ roll, twangy country and New Orleans R&B, with a little bit of that Buddy Holly-East Texas sound.”
Waters will cede the stage at 2:15 p.m. to North Carolina-based zydeco group Unknown Tongues, followed by New Jersey’s Sidewalk Zydeco (from the “delta of the Navesink River,” jokes Erwin, and highlighted by a washboard scrubber with the stage name Mary From Tokyo), before the Tongues close the day with a second set beginning at 4:45 p.m.
Erwin compares the non-Louisiana-based bands to blues artists from Russia or Zimbabwe. “They might not be of authentic origins, but they’ve passionately learned it and have their merits,” he said. “It’s these bands that carry the torch.”
Unknown Tongues’ bandleaders Bryan and Barbara Blake have put in their research time through multiple trips that they dub “Cajun camp.” The group is a Cajun Festival veteran, performing on the 2004 lineup.
“I like to tell people that Bryan is a born-again Cajun,” Barbara said of her husband, who plays accordion, fiddle, guitar and pedal steel with the group. “He was playing old-time mountain-style music when he first heard the Cajun fiddle, and it was like he was struck down by lighting. He fell in love with it.”
The couple founded a Mardi Gras festival in their hometown of Gloucester, on the North Carolina coast.
“We put the spear in the ground for Cajun culture in our area,” explains Blake. “It’s a joyous music. I feel like we’re kind of missionaries of Cajun music.”
For folks unsure of how to dance a waltz or two-step to a Creole or zydeco song, Blake says to simply follow the lead of another dancer or to just wing it. “I like when people just get up there and do their own thing,” she laughs. “We’re not sticklers about Cajun dancing precision.”
A crawfish feast
Unknown Tongues travels the country playing Cajun-themed festivals, but Blake claims that Charleston’s offering is one of the best, thanks to the beautiful location at James Island County Park and the quality of the food.
For some people, however, it’s more about the quantity.
Among the event’s most popular attractions is the annual crawfish-eating contest, when dozens of competitors line up to devour as many of the freshwater critters as possible in 30 seconds. Two years ago, that number was a whopping 24. All in all, 600 crawfish are consumed during the competition.
That’s a minor note compared to the total day’s consumption, however.
Caterer Sheffield said he’s ordered 2,000 pounds of live crawfish for the event, along with 400 gallons of chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, 400 gallons of etouffee, and 200 gallons of red beans and rice.
“If you leave hungry, it’s your own fault,” Sheffield ribs, adding that he’s happy to teach anyone how to eat a crawfish who’s not sure of proper procedure. He’ll be cooking them up in a giant rig he calls the “Cajun hot tub.”
Although treats like fried alligator tail will be available, there are also hot dogs, funnel cakes, snow cones and barbecue on hand for the less adventurous.
This year’s event has even attracted a film crew from the Cooking Channel show “Chuck’s Eat the Street,” featuring French-Canadian chef Chuck Hughes.
With thousands of pounds of food being served, it’s also notable that the CCPRC has partnered with the S.C. Green Fair to integrate recycling and composting into the event. In 2012, 95 percent of the festival’s waste was diverted from landfills.
When planning your attack for the day, Sheffield recommends that attendees come early, bring a blanket or chair, and leave the dogs and coolers at home (neither are permitted in the park Sunday).
“Get here early, stay all day and eat, be merry and have fun,” Sheffield said. “Once you come through the gate of James Island County Park on Sunday, you’re in Louisiana.”
The crawfish-eating contest is always a big event at the Cajun Festival. Contestants battle to see who can eat the most in 30 seconds.×
CCPRC Unknown Tongues will perform at this year’s Lowcountry Cajun Festival.×
A bead booth will be on-site offering up quite a selection to help get everyone in the Cajun spirit.×
Children can enjoy rides while parents dance to the music playing nearby.×
Attendees of a previous Lowcountry Cajun Festival at James Island County Park dance to zydeco music.×
The Lowcountry Cajun Festival is held at James Island County Park.×
Marvin Lenoir (left) and Herman Ray pour out crawfish for the Lowcountry Cajun Festival at James Island County Park.×