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Of Musicians and Mudbugs.

Posted by Sharon Armstrong on Thu, 05/06/2010 - 21:18

Being someone who is happiest with a full stomach, the food vendors immediately caught my attention. I am a huge fan of crawfish, those tiny, tasty crustaceans that according to Cajun lore originated as lobsters up in Canadian Acadia.

In the story, these sentimental lobsters apparently missed the Cajuns so much after their forced eviction from Canada by the British Government, that they followed the dispossessed people down south to Louisiana, becoming smaller but sweeter all the time due to the hard journey. Finally the lobsters found the Cajuns again in the swamps and bayous that were now home for many of the Acadian settlers, and they were re-united. Errr…happily for the lobsters?

I don’t know how true that story is, and I don’t know if eating your friends after such a long journey is really the best way to hi, but I do know that ‘mudbugs’, as they are affectionately known, are the staple ingredient of hundreds of recipes in Louisiana, and I have never met a crawfish that I haven’t liked…at least once they are cooked.

Therefore it was no surprise that the dish that immediately caught my eye was a crawfish and spinach stew, served in a bread bowl. Edible bowls! Fantastic! And it was – spicy, rich and creamy, and packed with tender crawfish tails. With all the spinach in it, I told myself, it had to be healthy, and non-fattening, right? Oh, well…

Next to the food vendors were dozens of white tent/booths. Sometimes it is a good idea to beware of the wares for sale at festival, but as I wandered from booth to booth, I found myself wishing that I had more room in my car. Metal sculptures of shoaling fish - taller than me - quivered and shone in the bright sunlight. Bright painted folk-art, and whimsical hand-painted signs, such as ‘Crawfish Xing’, ‘The biggest fish are caught by the TALE’, Blessed Be Y’all, and the post- victorious Saints Superbowl ubiquitous ‘Who Dat!’ and Louisiana ‘bottle-trees’ were for sale, using metal instead of live trees.

Bottle trees originated as means by which people in the South, usually slaves, sought to protect their homes from evil spirits. The idea was that the spirits were trapped in the bottles where they could do no harm. The South is steeped in such beliefs, but you don’t have to be a believer to want a bottle tree in your garden; the ‘trees’ are pretty enough to be their own reason.

Next to the bottle tree booth, Michael Hayman, ex-army and self-trained silversmith, was helping a woman adjust her newly purchased Pictish torc, so that it sat comfortably on her collar-bone, and didn’t pinch her neck. It gleamed in the sunshine, incongruously and sharply anachronistic when contrasted with her clam-digger and sneaker ensemble.

Hayman and his wife make their living travelling from festival to festival selling their jewelry, and as well as torcs and brooches, they also had a wide selection of rings, bracelets and earrings, all hand-made and designed by him and his wife, and all with an archaic slant to their design.
Talking about where the inspiration for his designs comes from, Hayman credits his Irish grandmother’s love of old Celtic legends, and a trip to the British Museum in London while he was in the US Army.

“I have a Scottish Grandmother and an Irish Grandmother,” he said.

“And both my grandfathers were Welsh. But my Irish Grandmother used to tell me stories about Cu Cullian and Finn Mac Cool, and I just sort of fell in love with all these legends and stories. During a trip to the British Museum in London, when I was in the army I saw all of these antiquities from that time period, and I said to myself, I got to have a piece like that and there is no way I am ever going to be able to buy a historical piece, so I am going to have to make them myself. And then I thought these are blokes who are making really fantastic jewelry without bottled oxygen, or anything. They didn’t have electricity, they didn’t even have magnification. And I thought, oh I can do this.”

He laughed self-deprecatorily, and showed me a ring with an intricate hound chasing hound motif.

“There’s a lot of Celtic roots here, even here in Louisiana,” he said.

“You can actually hear them in Zydeco and Cajun music. They are very similar to Celtic music in a lot of ways; it’s a lot of branches off the same tree. And I think that one of the reasons people sort of like it now is that it is a rebuttal of the really sterile, computerized world that we live in. People are tired of the ‘throw away’ images that you see all the time. I make things by hand, the old fashioned way and that is something that folks in this country have sort of lost. We don’t have a castle that is just there, that is 1400 years old. So this is a way for Americans to sort of keep a sense of continuity with their history in Europe that they have lost. And it’s not just Europeans, a lot of these motifs you find them in North Africa; you find them in North Asia you find even amongst the North American Indians, and people of the New World. So it gravitates into our psyche in a lot of different ways."

“I have been at this now for 12 years,” he said. “But there are still ancient pieces that I still look at and wonder how the hell they did it. But I am getting there, and one day ultimately I will be able to match some of the pieces…maybe.”

Some old and something new, and even, as I found out in the booth next to Hayman’s, some old things that have been made into something new. The booth was filled with multi-colored lampshades, made I was told from melted Mardi Gras beads, as well as bottle top and fused-glass rings.
The booth belonged to Heather Mac Farlane, a native of Edinburgh, who has lived in New Orleans for over 15 years. She and her partner Mark Kirk have a gallery in the Crescent City called Unique Products, which specializes in lighting and accessories, all made from recycled materials. They also have a display in the Smithsonian, showing bags made from EMRs (emergency meal ration?) that Heather and Mark fashioned after the Katrina.

Why use recycled material?

“That might be my thrifty Scottish roots,” Heather joked. “It saves me money!”

“No, actually from growing up in Scotland you have a different perspective,” she went on.

“We used to make our Christmas presents, you know, and it wasn’t that we were broke or anything, it was that, that was what we did. My parents were farmers, so we were very hands on, so a lot of my ideas and values come from how I was brought up over there. You weren’t brought up in mass consumerism, and TV, we didn’t. And so when I moved to New Orleans I started this company where I took Mardi Gras beads, which were basically free in New Orleans – they are literally hanging off the trees. So there you go money can grow on trees. And I started melting down the beads to create a new type of plastic, and then with that plastic I started creating home-wear and lighting… I think I am a little obsessed with melting things, because now I am a glass fuser as well. We just had our tenth anniversary of our shop, and we are still going. We believe in keeping things quite simple. We go around and do all the different festivals; we go as far as Florida, Mississippi, Memphis and Alabama. I love the Festival Internationale because I am very into world music, and this is one of the best festivals in the South for hearing music from all over the world.”

The International Festival does definitely live up to its name. As I walked through the crowded streets, the best way to describe the atmosphere was in terms of street party rather than festival. People crowded under any and all shade, in complete contrast to Scottish festivals where I, for one, always stretched out in any and every patch of sunshine I could find. They sat in fold-away chairs, on the sidewalk, on their beer coolers, listening to Zydeco music from within earshot of Celtic and African. The whole festival exuded easy-going enthusiasm, and nowhere was that enthusiasm more clearly shown than during Lúnasa’s show on the massive Scène Popeye.