Charleston isn’t just locked on traditional Lowcountry folkways. Next weekend, it will be a doorway to another beloved coastal culture – one whose heartland is 1,000 miles southwest.
Charleston and New Orleans share parallel roots.
The seaport in South Carolina was founded in 1670, and its fortunes rose as Lowcountry settlers discovered the humid subtropical climate was fine for growing crops like rice and indigo (a plant much prized in Europe as the source of blue-purple dye). Among its early settlers were Huguenots – Protestant refugees from France who fled to England and then put down roots in the New World. In the early walled city of Charleston, many tended to settle between Meeting Street and the Cooper River, between Broad and Market Street. Enough pre-Revolutionary War buildings survived to eventually earn that neighborhood the title of French Quarter and, in 1973, its being named to the National Register of Historic Places.
New Orleans began in 1718 as a different kind of swamp-side river port. The Cajun food and music of southern Louisiana are based on the culture of French-Canadians deported to bayou country by the British around that time. Louisiana was a colony of Catholic France that had little British or American influence until the United States bought it in 1803 as the crown jewel of the Louisiana Purchase.
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Besides rice and okra, cuisines in both Charleston and New Orleans traditionally included shrimp and other seafood, gators and catfish, and styles of spicing that mingled French, African-American and Caribbean influences.
Small wonder so many tourists flock to both cities for a taste of the relatively exotic.
And that’s what’s offered noon-6 p.m. April 3, when the 25th annual Lowcountry Cajun Festival will be held at Charleston’s James Island County Park.
What’s cooking next Sunday? Vendors will be selling Cajun and Creole fare – jambalaya, alligator, étouffée, andouille sausage and, of course, crawfish. There will also be Carolina Lowcountry favorites like seafood and Southern barbecue.
There will be standard fest fare – hot dogs and such – for the unadventurous. Big-time fans of Cajun food need to be aware the crawfish-eating contest begins at 2:30 p.m.
Event-centric music will be played on the stage. Keyboardist/singer Shrimp City Slim, who is based in Charleston, starts at 1 p.m. with Lowcountry blues. Johnny Ace & Sidewalk Zydeco tore up the New York club scene a few years ago (“highly recommended,” according to Time Out NY) and are a fixture on the zydeco circuit.
Zydeco? That’s the highly syncopated Louisiana folk music based on an accordion (which Johnny Ace wields) and – in addition to a drummer – a specialized percussionist clickety-clacking on a metal washboard worn like a vest. That outfit starts at 2:45 p.m.
The headliner (4:30-6 p.m.) is Terry & The Zydeco Bad Boys, out of Duson, La. Did you see the “Today Show” segment last weekend about the “Happiest City in America” being Lafayette, La.? This is the band seen and heard at the report’s opening and closing – driving dancers wild at a show at the Feed N Seed in downtown Lafayette.
Lowcountry Cajun Festival admission is $15.
Any time of the year, James Island County Park is an incredibly cool place for travelers toting kids. There’s no admission charge for 12 and younger at the festival, but for a $15 wristband they can gain unlimited all-day access to the event’s carnival rides, inflatables and carnival games.
John Bordsen: 704-358-5251
Want to go?
Charleston is three hours south of Charlotte via I-77 South and I-26 East. James Island County Park is 10 minutes southwest of downtown Charleston. Cajun Fest details: www.cprc.com ( “click Festivals & Events”).