GONZALES — Keeping true to its decades-old traditions, the Jambalaya Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary while marking the close of one chapter.
Steve Juneau, a founder of the Jambalaya Festival Association and a judge for the festival’s jambalaya competition over the past decade, decided to pass the torch, making this year his last as a judge.
“Let a young person come in with young ideas,” said Juneau, 75, who has been active with the association since its founding in 1967.
Juneau spoke fondly of his festival memories and how the association came to be.
Originally from Marksville, Juneau was first introduced to good jambalaya when he moved to Gonzales in 1964 to work at a funeral home.
A good part of the culture of Gonzales, dubbed the “Jambalaya Capital of the World” in 1968 by then-Gov. John J. McKeithen, revolves around the dish, Juneau said.
“When I first came to Gonzales, there was jambalaya when somebody got married, jambalaya when somebody had a baby, jambalaya for a funeral, jambalaya for political events,” Juneau said while laughing. “In Marksville, we never had that.”
Juneau had eaten the dish at home before, cooked once by his grandmother, but was decidedly unimpressed.
“I’d gone out to a rice farm and killed a bunch of blackbirds and brought them home,” Juneau said.
“My grandmother made a jambalaya with the blackbirds, and it was absolutely the worst-tasting thing I’d ever had in my life.
“So when I came here, and they started talking about jambalaya, I said, ‘I ain’t eatin’ that,’” he said. “But these people over here can cook it to a T.”
Juneau started the Jambalaya Festival Association after visiting an old friend at the Cochon de Lait Festival back home.
“Man, the light bulb just came on,” he said. “This was something we could really do.”
In the festival’s first year, 13 cooks participated. Over the years, that number grew, and for its 50th anniversary, over 100 cooks competed, Juneau said.
But getting to this point wasn’t always easy.
“We’ve had our ups and downs in the festival,” Juneau said. “Some years, it was better than others.”
The festival was forced to change locations multiple times and wound up in federal court over an altercation between a festivalgoer and the police.
“That was probably the lowest point because we wound up in court, and the judge blamed us for what happened,” Juneau said. “The School Board canceled us, so we couldn’t go on school grounds anymore.”
But as Juneau tells his friends, he’d rather be lucky than good, and lucky he indeed seems to be.
From starting a festival with just $800 in his bank account to dealing with the trial, he found a more permanent home for the festival when then-Mayor Johnny Berthelot told him the festival should settle on Irma Boulevard.
“The city has been marvelous to us ever since,” Juneau said.
Wally Taillon is president of the Jambalaya Festival and the person Juneau credits for what the festival is today. Taillon said most of the cook-off contestants are from the Ascension Parish area, and many of them have participated before.
Todd Breaux, a finalist seven times and a participant for 30 years, said winning is the top thing on his bucket list.
Breaux will have to keep that goal; the winners announced Sunday night are cook Kade Lanoux, 25, and helper Tyler Billingsly, 33, both of Gonzales.
A sense of family pervades the competition, despite the eagerly sought-after prize of a towering trophy, a custom-made ring by Layne’s Jewelry and $2,000.
“The camaraderie is second to none,” said Ralph Delatte, who has competed for 18 years.
“It’s a family competition. We all consider each other brothers.”
“I think back on all the people that worked with the festival through all the years; I see their faces, and I think of them a lot because they were all so nice,” Juneau said, tearing up but then grinning as friends stopped by.