Every other year, the city of Meylan, France, pulls the large jambalaya pot out of storage in preparation for a delegation from its sister city in Gonzales.
That’s when the Jambalaya Capital of the World sends its best Franco-American ambassadors — it’s jambalaya cooks, said John Hebert, one of the trip’s original organizers.
The Gonzales Committee on Cultural Affairs has been running the exchange program for 30 years, said President Karen Hatcher, when the typical lifespan of a sister-city exchange program tends to be in the 6- to 7-year range.
Hebert studied French in college, he said, but really learned to speak the language over the years during his trips to Meylan, and has developed close friendships with his hosts there, he said, though he learns something surprising every time he goes.
“Somebody from the American Consulate over there said we probably doing more for French-American relations than they were,” Hebert laughed.
And, of course, there is no better public relations tool for Ascension Parish than a steaming bowl of jambalaya.
In 2010, the Jambalaya Festival Association sent over one of the large cooking pots that is a common sight in Gonzales — the Jambalaya Capital of the World — and it is stored in an old monastery now owned by the city of Meylan.
“We passed out 800 bowls of jambalaya. They kept washing dishes as people finished, so there were probably closer to 1,000, though I suspect some people came back for seconds or thirds,” he said.
Hatcher added that the portions were a bit small in order to give as many people as possible a taste of the signature dish.
This year’s group of 20, ranging in age from 20 to 81, Hatcher said, all had a great time, by all accounts. Costs were kept in control because the group staying with local families rather than in hotels, she said, as part of the cultural experience.
They lived as the locals live, and that was an eye-opening experience for Stevi Girouard, 2013 winner of the Miss Jambalaya Festival pageant.
“They walked or rode bikes everywhere,” she said. “That’s what blew my mind. It was very different from here, where you really have to have a car to get around. Little kids were riding their bikes around town, and it was cool to see that.”
For the first time this year, Hatcher said, the committee and the Jambalaya Festival Association sponsored the trip for the jambalaya queen.
“Every even year, the queen goes to D.C. for the Mardi Gras ball, but on odd years, they don’t get a trip,” she said. “We decided to do something about that.”
Girouard said she enjoyed the trip, and the language barrier was never an issue.
“Some people spoke English, and when they didn’t, we were able to get our point across with hand motions,” she said. “It was very beautiful, the scenery was gorgeous, we ate a lot of good food.”
Having local tour guides showing them around the area, she said, created a truly unique travel experience, including going where the locals go, and doing what the locals do. “We saw things we probably never would have seen if we had just booked a trip there, ourselves,” she said.
They visited the site of a village in the Vercor Mountains, Hebert said, that was a stronghold for the French resistance during World War II.
The village was bombed heavily by German armed forces, Hatcher explained, and was left as-is as a memorial to what happened there.
“We met a woman who was there during the war, and she told us they ran into the mountains to hide from the Germans,” Hebert said. The woman said when they saw the American troops coming, they cried. “She said, ‘I owe my life to Americans.’ ”
It was a powerful moment that Hebert will never forget.
The committee will have a bit of time to sleep off their jet lag, but will soon be at it again, planning for the French delegation’s visit to Gonzales in April, Hatcher said.
Last year the city, the Jambalaya Association and the parish put together a coffee table book with photos of the area, Hatcher said, and brought 20 copies with them to Meylan. “That created a lot of excitement about our area,” Hatcher said, so she’s expecting a good turnout in April.