This year in Louisiana, more than 120 pageant queens will be crowned in honor of crops and commodities, as they have been for some 70 years.
The queens are young women, ages 17 through 23, who have studied to compete at agricultural festivals for titles including Miss Shrimp and Petroleum, Miss Oyster, Miss Frog Festival, and Queen Cotton. Their mission: to travel the state for 12 months, educating the Louisiana public about the importance of the commodities they represent.
To have won, the queens must already know a tremendous amount about their own industries. Miss Ponchatoula Strawberry can hold forth on how crops were covered in the days before insecticide; Miss Breaux Bridge Crawfish can differentiate a male crawfish from a female.
“I’ve always had a passion for crawfish,” said Madison Frederick, this year’s Miss Crawfish. But she had no idea how much she’d pick up from the other young monarchs. “I knew I would go around to different festivals but I’ve learned so much,” she said.
The biggest and oldest of the trade festivals is the International Rice Festival, held each October in Crowley, La. (Official town motto: “Where life is rice and easy.”) For context: While John F. Kennedy was seeking the Democratic presidential bid in 1959, he crowned the 23rd International Rice Queen, a fact that nearly any Crowley resident is happy to share. Miss Rice is the most global of the Louisiana queens; she gets to travel each year, usually out-of-state, to the International Rice Millers Convention. Last year, it was held in Hawaii.
“A lot of people think this is just a beauty pageant,” said Hailey Hensgens Fleming, 26, who was crowned the 77th International Rice Festival Queen in 2014. She was standing in front of the outdoor pageant stage with a 14-day-old baby on her hip, waiting to hear who would take the title for the coming year. “It’s so much more than that,” she continued. “You are a spokesperson for the rice industry. You’re representing the farmers, who work day in and day out to put food on your table.”
Ms. Fleming’s family has been farming rice for five generations. That didn’t make her a more competitive candidate for rice queen, she said, but it didn’t hurt either.
All six contestants who stood on the stage had some connection to rice farming, having grown up in Crowley or around it. The judges asked: If you were to wake up tomorrow morning with one new ability, what would it be?
One contestant said: “More confidence.” Another wished for the ability to study more. But it was Jimi Joubert, 20, of Church Point, La., with the winning answer. “If I woke up tomorrow and could gain one ability,” she said, “it would be to have multiple me. That way I could be everywhere, and teach everyone about the rice industry.”
When she was later crowned Miss Rice, Ms. Joubert broke down into tears. “It doesn’t feel real,” she said. Ms. Joubert had competed in agricultural pageants before. She even won 2017’s Scott Boudin Festival Queen, a title she appreciated, she said. But that one didn’t feel as momentous as rice.
“The Boudin Festival is on their seventh festival, so it’s a newer title,” she said. “Rice is just so old, and more well known.”
Many of the commodities the queens represent are endangered by climate change. Louisiana’s oysters, which are celebrated in Amite City but have been battered by storms and oil spills, drowned by the millions this past year as too much freshwater from Midwestern snowmelt made its way down the Mississippi River.
In Morgan City, once a big shrimp town and the site of the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, there are hardly any shrimp left; those that remain have been pushed into the Gulf of Mexico thanks to an overflowing Atchafalaya River.
Even rice, a stable Louisiana export, is threatened; the grain needs fresh water to grow, and erratic storms and rising seas have sent an influx of saltwater into the fields.
It’s something the queens don’t talk about much, though the vitality of their respective commodities stays on their minds. At the cotton pageant in Ville Platte this year, Shelbi Rials, the winning Cotton Queen, was confronted with this question: “Cotton used to be king in Evangeline Parish, but it’s no longer grown there. What can you do to make sure we keep it alive for future generations?”
Ms. Rials, 20, said she would start with the schools, and try to get children more involved in learning about the history of the crop. (She is studying to be an elementary schoolteacher.) But the reality of preserving cotton farming boils down to economics; the crop is not nearly as lucrative as soy, corn or rice. And it requires specific equipment for a harvest. Cotton isn’t an easy crop for new farmers to pick up.
A 5,000-Mile Journey
Back at the rice festival, this year’s Miss Scott Boudin, Ashlyn Hanks, 19, was sitting at a folding table with a few other queens in the festival staging area, wearing a pink jumpsuit, a sash with her title on it and a tall, glittering tiara. “It’s really neat to see where all of my ingredients, for what I represent, come from,” she said, referring to the sausage casing, seasoning and rice that go into making boudin, a pork stuffing. To be competitive in her pageant, Ms. Hanks had to learn the hard facts of sausage making. “Boudin is so old that they used to pack it in real pig intestines,” she said, smiling.
Ms. Frederick had to learn the difference between Red Swamp and White River crawfish. “When you suck the head, that’s the fat of the crawfish,” she said. “People think it’s the brain, but it’s really not, and it’s delicious.”
The Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival where Ms. Frederick was crowned is unique among the Louisiana pageants because it requires its contestants to be from the city of Breaux Bridge proper (population about 8,000), making it a closely guarded title. Ms. Frederick, who was wearing a red dress and bejeweled crawfish tiara (the animal’s sparkly legs were splayed out as if it had been recently boiled), was already dreading having to give up her crown at the next crawfish pageant in Breaux Bridge in April. “I’ve already cried multiple times,” she said.
Ms. Hanks is working toward a career in film and Ms. Frederick is in college at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, but both travel every weekend, sometimes to multiple festivals. By the end of their respective reigns, each queen will have logged close to 5,000 miles across the state, including a visit to Governor John Bel Edwards’ mansion in Baton Rouge.
“Before I started traveling, I thought all of Louisiana was just Cajuns, like us,” Ms. Frederick said. “But it’s only a small part, like Breaux Bridge and Lafayette. Just a small part of Louisiana.”
Many of the queens are seasoned pageant participants. Hali Westerman, this year’s Miss Louisiana Fur and Wildlife, said she competed in her first pageant when she was 6 months old. “My mom didn’t want me to be shy,” she said, stroking her mink pageant sash. “She wanted me to gain speaking skills, to be able to talk to people.”
At her festival, which has been held since 1955 in a town of 406 people called Cameron, there’s a nutria skinning competition. It’s a pastime with a double objective: It gives hunters practice at skinning rodents and helps to control the nutria population.
Nutria, large bucktooth rodents, ravage Louisiana swamps with unchecked breeding, feasting on trees and plants that keep the soil of the wetlands from further eroding into the Gulf of Mexico. “We get to watch onstage,” said Ms. Westerman, of the skinning. “It’s very serious, because you have to separate the pelt from the carcass. People get really into this stuff. The pelts can be turned into anything. My coat, I don’t have it with me right now, but it’s nutria. It’s beautiful, bleached nutria.”
‘We Tend to Stick Together’
There’s a particular anxiety surrounding the traditions of agricultural pageantry in Louisiana. Most contest entry forms forbid competitors from having been married or having had children, and some, including the entry form for Miss Cattle, require entrants to promise they were “born female.”
The contract for Louisiana Strawberry Festival queens notes that “marriage, pregnancy or living in common law during the reign” results in “immediate dismissal.”
These antiquated rules are followed strictly even as — especially as — global warming, coastal erosion and foreign competition threaten many of the industries that Louisiana holds dear. In the face of an uncertain future for oysters and cotton and shrimp, the queens themselves have become a kind of symbol for renewal and fertility, beacons of stability as the coastline washes into the Gulf.
Alison Pisani, a pageant coach who has worked with many winning queens, said that even as things in Louisiana disappear, and even as hurricanes roll in, the festivals offer a chance to celebrate what’s left. “If there’s one thing I’m sure you all know about Louisiana, it’s that if we are headstrong about a certain commodity, we tend to stick together on it,” she said. “So I feel that, even if something were to lessen, let’s say the shrimp, I don’t think that would change.”
Two weeks after the rice pageant, a few of the queens were in Basile, La. for the Swine Festival. (Most were resting up to attend the Cracklin Festival pageant, celebrating fried pieces of pork skin, the following day.)
In the center of the fairgrounds, a pig named Petunia guzzled water from a plastic bottle as Jynlee Conner, the festival’s 15-year-old Teen Swine Queen, a division for younger competitors, assured onlookers that Petunia was a pet, and would not be eaten.
Ms. Conner, who has blond hair and braces and has held multiple festival titles — including Junior Deb Swine Queen and Junior Teen Swine Queen — was preparing to take part in the festival’s annual boudin-eating contest. This competition is entirely between the queens.
“I got second when I was teen queen,” said Alaina Denette, 19, the new Swine Festival Queen, whose rhinestone crown featured a portly pig. After the boudin-eating contest, there would be a greased pig chase, where the queens would have to chase after a piglet who had been oiled and thus, would be extremely difficult to catch.
Ms. Denette and Ms. Conner both love pork, an important quality to possess for those aiming to be Swine Festival royalty. “Boudin, cracklins, that’s a regular basis at my house,” Ms. Denette said. Ms. Conner added, “We also have ponce, my favorite. It’s the pig stomach. It tastes like a big, giant sausage.”
As the swine queens and a handful of visiting queens lined up to eat, the M.C. of the contest detailed the rules and placed half of a link of boudin in front of each competitor.
“Miss Janice has to see your hands up and your mouth open,” the M.C. said, referring to a judge. “And we’re also watching from up here, so you can’t sneak part of it in your pocket or throw it over your shoulder. Everything has to be swallowed, completely. The dressing, the casing, everything.”
It took the winner, the 13 year-old Deb Miss Swine Queen Aubrey Lejean, a mere 40 seconds. “I don’t think this is the first time she’s won this,” the M.C. told the crowd. “Aubrey, have you won this before? Yes. Second time!”
When asked for her technique, Ms. Lejean shrugged. “I just love it,” she said.