ANGLETON, TEXAS - A black man is on stage, singing in the French patois of the Cajun people as he squeezes melodies out of his accordion and his fellow musicians play along on drums, bass, guitar and washboard. As they play, young and old dance, while people sitting at nearby tables pick and peel little red crustaceans sometimes called crayfish, but better known as crawfish.
This was the scene over the weekend at the Brazoria County Crawfish Festival held at a racetrack near Angleton, Texas, under mostly cloudy skies.
Gusts of wind tore down some tents and a light rain sometimes fell on attendees, but that is expected at this time of year in Texas, when rain and crawfish can arrive in abundance.
"The thing about a crawfish festival," said organizer Bob Fuldaur, "is you have that window of time when it is crawfish season … roughly March through June."
Although some of these freshwater crustaceans are harvested in Texas during that period, 90 percent of all the crawfish harvested in the United States come from Louisiana and 70 percent of that is consumed there.
Crawfish boiled in spices are tasty, but they also bring people together for a common experience.
"It just means fun," Fuldaur said, "it is just a fun food and you always eat with a group."
Cajun influence in Texas
The crawfish experience came to Texas with the Cajuns, thousands of whom now live in the Houston area.
They are descendants of French settlers expelled from their homeland of Acadia in Canada between 1755 and 1764 because they refused to accept British rule.
Many sailed to what was then the French territory of Louisiana and settled in the bayous and swampland near New Orleans, where they learned to utilize local plants and animals in their cuisine — borrowing ideas from the Creole French who preceded them, and developing their own specialties, as well.
In Texas — as in Louisiana — Cajun language, traditions, food and music blended into a gumbo, or mixture, of French, African, Spanish and American Indian influences.
The Zydeco music played at the Brazoria County Crawfish Festival is a blend of Cajun traditional music and the blues that former black slaves developed in this region following the American Civil War in the mid-19th century.
Fuldaur says the music is essential to the event.
"You have got to have Zydeco," he said, "as well as the blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll."
Preparing, eating crawfish
Mark McAlpin spent most of his time at the festival working over a large metal vat full of boiling water and crawfish.
"You let ‘em boil about two to three minutes, and then you let ‘em soak for about 15 minutes," he said.
During that time, he stirs them occasionally with a long ladle. When they are ready to eat, he hauls them out of the vat in a large mesh cage, and opens the bottom gate to dump them into a pan for serving.
At nearby tables, those people with long experience eating the small, lobster-like animals simply give them a quick twist, pull the meat from the tail, and pop it into their mouths. Most people, however, spend a lot of time and effort picking the delectable tails out of the shells.
Oscar Ibarra from Spring, Texas, is a big fan.
"I like everything," he said, "the texture, the taste, the spice. I enjoy it."
The Brazoria County Crawfish Festival included a variety of other foods as well, such as fried alligator meat, hot dogs, Greek gyros and lots of sweets. One woman even made little cookies designed to resemble crawfish.
Other attractions included carnival rides, armadillo races and a dog splash contest in which canines pursuing a toy tossed by a trainer are judged by how far they can jump into a pool.
"What we try to do is take the feel of a small-town, friendly community fair and just serve it up really big," Fuldaur said.
As the festival was underway Saturday and Sunday, a large storm was forming in the nearby Gulf of Mexico that would drench the area in record rain and cause widespread flooding by Monday.
But the festival wrapped up Sunday afternoon, so the crawfish lovers and music fans were able to get their fill of both.