The first in-person installment of the festival to be held since 2019 will take place on Saturday, July 23
Note: Post author Chris Jay is currently employed part-time by the Louisiana Folklife Center, organizers of the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival. He wrote this post on his own time.
As some of y’all know, I’m pursuing my master’s degree in Louisiana Folklife and Southern Studies at the Graduate School at Northwestern State University. One of the things that attracted me to the program was its outstanding folk festival, held each July in NSU’s Prather Coliseum. The 42nd Annual Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival—the first in-person edition of the fest to take place since 2019—is coming up, 9 a.m.-10 p.m., on Saturday, July 23. RSVP to the Facebook event here.
Most folks who attend the festival probably go for one reason: live entertainment from Louisiana legends who don’t perform publicly very often. This year’s live music lineup includes, for example, an 11:45 a.m. performance by Goldman Thibodeaux and the Lawtell Playboys. Thibodeaux is believed to be the last living Creole “La La” bandleader. “La La” music is acoustic Creole house party music. Other live music and dance highlights, for me, include the Louisiana State Fiddle Championship at 1 p.m., the Caddo Culture Club at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., and the Winnsboro Easter Rock Ensemble at 10:15 a.m.
Naturally, I’m excited about the food. If you look closely at the schedule of demonstrations, exhibits, and craft vendors, you can put together an incredible day spent exploring traditional Louisiana foodways. Here are some of my picks for things that you should eat, buy, and learn about at this year’s fest, beginning with the vendors. Please keep in mind that festival details are tentative and may change.
Chris’s Picks: Food Vendors
Debbie’s Meat Pies (Tioga, LA)
First things first: This festival is being held in Natchitoches, so you’d better immediately eat a meat pie upon arrival so as not to insult any local dignitaries. Debbie Gilley’s made-from-scratch pies look gorgeous and come filled with everything from pulled pork to mac-and-cheese. I’ll have a traditional one, or two, or three.
Marjorie Battise’s Koasati Fry Bread (Kinder, LA)
Speaking of folks that don’t just turn up at any ol’ festival: Marjorie Battise will be returning to the festival to sell traditional “Indian fry bread” as well as “Indian tacos” and fry bread with sausage, all of which she learned to make from her mother. A member of the Koasati Indian tribe from Elton, Louisiana, Batisse was inducted into the Louisiana Folklife Center’s Hall of Master Folk Artists in 1982. Learn more about Master Folk Artist Marjorie Batisse here.
Roosevelt Sykes’s Washtub Hog Cracklin (St. Maurice, LA)
Roosevelt Sykes can often be found selling old school soul food on Texas Street in Natchitoches. For the festival, he will be selling his celebrated “washtub” hog cracklin, which his father taught him to prepare while growing up in rural St. Maurice, La.
“I’m doing them the way they originally was did, you know, from the old days. They’re cooked in my old, big washtub,” Sykes said. “I started way back when I was a little boy. I’m 67 years-old now. When I was a little boy, me and my dad used to kill hogs, you know, and cut the cracklins out.”
Sykes plans to sell his cracklin for $10 per bag or $16 per pound at the festival, with samples available.
Michael Gillie’s Bayou Soul (Natchez, LA)
I’ve never had the pleasure of tasting the food from Bayou Soul in Natchez, Louisiana, but looking at the photos on their Facebook page has helped me see the error of my ways. If the rice dressing in those photos is making the trip to Natchitoches, it’ll either be my second or third lunch. Seriously look at this photo.
Chris’s Picks: Craftspeople and Demonstrations
John Oswald Colson, Master Filé Maker
So, you’ve decided to make a Creole gumbo and you want to do it correctly. Here’s your opportunity to pick up some fresh-ground filé made using traditional methods and locally foraged herbs to produce a vibrant, bright-green powder that is entirely unlike store-bought filé. Check out this video of Mr. Colson at work and, if you’re anything like me, he may be one of your first stops at the festival:
I spoke with Mr. Colson recently, and he asked me to pass along that you shouldn’t keep this stuff in a hot place, like above the oven.
“A lotta people put it in the spice rack, or above the oven—that’s the worst place in the world to put it,” he said. “Put it in the refrigerator and it’ll taste and smell exactly the same for up to three years.”
Central Louisiana Dutch Oven Cookers
One of the groups who’ll be staging demos throughout the day on the grounds outside of Prather Coliseum is the Central Louisiana Dutch Oven Cookers. These folks have made a lot of headlines in recent years for their accomplishments and for their busy schedule—they stage a big cookout each month at a local state park. I haven’t been able to find out what they’ll be demoing throughout the day, but here’s some advice: If you’re hungry, stop by their demo area. You may just luck into a black pot filled with jambalaya, peach cobbler, or smothered chicken quarters fresh from an earthen oven that you didn’t have to tend.
Frieda Tuma, Pysanky Egg Artist
This festival has always been a great place to shop for gifts for folks who treasure unique, hand-crafted things. This year, Frieda Tuma of the Louisiana Czech Heritage Association will again be selling her ornately decorated pysanky eggs. But unlike previous years, this Ukrainian folk art form will have special meaning due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. “Decorating them has become a gesture of peace, as the war has brought new meaning to an old tradition that dates back to pre-Christian times,” TIME says.
Kirk Martin, Master Carpenter and Cooper
I know I’m not talking to everyone here, but: Do you need a new old-timey butter churn? How about a historically accurate, one-of-a-kind wooden tankard for drinking ale (renaissance faire people, I’m looking at you)? Maybe you are interested in barrel-aging cocktails, but have no idea how you’d ever get a little barrel with a spigot? Master carpenter and cooper Kirk Martin can hook you up, m’lady.
Martin will be selling and demonstrating the traditional production of casks and barrels throughout the day.
Chris’s Picks: Performances
Winnsboro Easter Rock Ensemble
10:15 a.m., East Stage
I’m no expert on the Winnsboro Easter Rock Ensemble, who were named NEA National Heritage Fellows in 2021, but I have seen them rock in-person on two separate occasions, including once at their original home, the True Light Baptist Church in Winnsboro. The ceremony, which will be re-created at the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival, involves a group of white-clad women dancing in circles around a table filled with cakes, waving hand-made flags and singing praises while stomping out the beat. Here is the NEA video from 2021:
The Caddo Culture Club
Informance: 11 a.m., N-Club Room
Presentation 1: 1 p.m., West Stage
Presentation 2: 3:30 p.m., Main Stage
If you’re interested in learning about Caddo culture, you’re in luck: the Caddo Culture Club will take part in a discussion/performance (the festival calls these “informances”) at 11 a.m. followed by two programs in the afternoon that will feature “our songs and dances and providing information about our history as well as modern activities,” according to their website. The topic of Caddo foodways may or may not come up during the day’s programs, but, either way, this is a great opportunity to learn about Caddo culture.