I’m staring at a seven-pound platter of “mudbugs,” saying a silent prayer of thanks to kashrut for making them a forbidden food.
The mudbugs, otherwise known as crawfish, are a coveted food in southwest Louisiana between December and June each year. Farmed in the rice fields by the millions, they’re available live or boiled at roadside drive-through stands, as popular as Tim Hortons on a snowy day.
Locals who don’t want to cook crawfish themselves stand in line at Steamboat Bills, a restaurant on Interstate 10, where the critters arrive on heaped, well-seasoned platters, their little feet and claws curled up in a position of final repose.
Eating crawfish is a very tactile job that involves a lot of finger-work. First you have to dismember the head with a careful twist of the hand. Then you extricate a small piece of meat from the tail, tossing the rest of the critter. For longtime Lake Charles resident Kaylen Fletcher, nothing could be more blissful than a large platter of mudbugs. For this writer, though, I’d as soon eat live roaches than reach into a platter of crawfish.
I find myself wondering if the early Jewish residents in Lake Charles felt the same way about crawfish when they first arrived in the 1870s. By 1894, they had secured space in the cemetery and built Temple Sinai, a magnificent synagogue with stained-glass windows and decorative byzantine steeples. A Reform community from the get-go, theirs was a two-storey synagogue with an organ on the second level. There were 100 families at the peak of Lake Charles’ Jewish life, among them many successful merchants and businessmen. Sure, there were setbacks. A hurricane in 1918 knocked those steeples to the ground, and they were never replaced with new ones. But the synagogue had already been spared in the great fire of 1910 that razed much of downtown to the ground. Future hurricanes, too, left Temple Sinai unscathed.
Today, the temple’s challenges have more to do with numbers and demographics than with natural disasters. The 67 families that maintain membership are aging, says temple secretary Diane McCarthy. “The kids tend to move away, complaining that there’s not enough to do, and the old people are dying,” she says. The building, now 114 years old and in great condition, is on the National Register of Historic Buildings and provisions have been made that even if the Jewish community no longer exists, it will become a museum. “I don’t think that will happen, though,” says McCarthy. “Somehow, we’ll keep it going, however small the community.”
The Jewish community remains active today, with a weekly Hebrew school for 10 children, services led by Rabbi Barry Weinstein twice a month and by lay leaders the rest of the time, a choir and a weekly Hebrew class taught in Temple Sinai’s education centre, around the back of the building. There’s been only one incident of antisemitism that McCarthy can remember, and it was a spray-painted swastika some 19 years ago. “The whole community showed up to help get it off the wall,” she says.
As she showed me out the door, she gestured to a brochure advertising corned beef sandwiches, the shul’s annual fundraiser in March. “That’s kosher corned beef flown in from Chicago,” she said with emphasis.
I was visiting Lake Charles to experience the state’s second-largest Mardi Gras, first place belonging to New Orleans. “Our Mardi Gras is very different from New Orleans,” said Bernard Beaco, a resident in his 80s who grew up in New Orleans.
“In New Orleans most people take Mardi Gras too far,” he mused. “The costuming gets to be ridiculous there. Here in Lake Charles, it’s family oriented, more conservative and comparatively mild. We have several zones in the city that are specifically for kids, with no alcohol or tobacco allowed. What we offer is good, clean fun, with activities for tots through seniors.”
I could testify to that. Most of the events I attended in the final three-day wrap-up of the Mardi Gras festivities were firmly family focused. At the Gumbo Cook-off, families sampled alligator gumbo, armadillo gumbo and other variations on this traditional Louisiana soup-like stew that’s served over rice. The purple, green and gold colours of Mardi Gras were everywhere, and it was easy to tell that Mardi Gras is a tradition rooted firmly in the veins of this town. It’s taken seriously, and it’s all about food and fun.
Some of that fun was evident at the children’s parade, where “krewes” boarded their floats and drove slowly through the downtown core, their occupants throwing bead necklaces to the children waiting expectantly at the curbsides. The parade brought young and old to the streets where they basked in the sunshine, collected necklaces and celebrated Mardi Gras with their families, continuing its rich history.
The meaning of the festival, though, went far beyond that one day, explained Randy Roach, the mayor of Lake Charles. “It’s what’s behind the celebration that’s important,” he said. “Mardi Gras is an event that cuts across race, creed, nationality and socioeconomic status and builds relationships all year long. It’s a significant part of who we are as a people.”