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Party like it's Mardi Gras 

First-annual Cajun festival will kick you in the taste buds

When truck driver Jason Foux is out on a long stretch of road, his mind escapes to his favorite space at home — the kitchen. The native Cajun, who moved from Sulfur, La., to Charlotte in 2011, can make a mean gumbo for family and friends. As long as there are peppers, onions, and celery in his fridge, Foux can go back to his roots with one dish.

While there's no place like Foux's kitchen, an upcoming Charlotte festival aims to bring Cajun cuisine to a broader audience in the Queen City. The 1st annual Charlotte Bayou Festival will be held in Independence Park on Saturday, June 23 from noon until 8 p.m. The all-you-can-eat food choices include seafood, jambalaya and even alligator. Kind Beer will provide the libations to wash down plates of boiled crabs. Along with the feast will be live music and plenty of vendors, including Live Pretty Jewelry, Kil'n Time Pottery and High Royalty Clothing. People can also compete in a hot-pepper eating contest, get their faces painted and watch cooking demonstrations.

The Charlotte Bayou festival's official mission is "To put creative expression into our community." Event organizer Shelton Roseboro — whose wife and in-laws are natives of Louisiana — has turned his personal passion for Cajun cuisine into a public celebration for the culture.

"I have always been intrigued with the history, culture, good food, and musical traditions Louisiana has to offer," Roseboro says. "I wanted to bring a piece of the bayou to the Queen City by sharing the Creole cuisines and music, which is closely identified with New Orleans."

Cajun-Creole cuisine originally came to Louisiana by way of Europe. In 1690, immigrants from France and Spain settled in Louisiana. Their descendants were known as Creoles. Cajuns — then French-speaking immigrants from Canada — followed during the French and Indian War from 1754 through 1763. Refugees and farmers honed Cajun-style cooking by using any and all available ingredients in their region — including seafood in the bayous near the Gulf of Mexico. They also used vegetables as a base, forming what is called the Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking ingredients: peppers, onions and celery. They incorporated that with French cooking flavors and techniques, including creamy bisques and dishes based in a roux — the French flour and fat combination with a gravy-like consistency, says chef Fred Teiss, associate professor at the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University Charlotte Campus.

Cajun cuisine became a national fad in the early 1980s, thanks to television chefs of the time like Paul Prudhomme, a native of Louisiana. In 1985, Charlotte got in on the trend with the opening of The Cajun Queen on Seventh Street. Those who were familiar with milder French cooking gradually warmed to the new heat.

"People really didn't know what it was, so it was kind of a slow reception," says Cajun Queen restaurant owner and head chef Robert Gottfried, 50. "We had good food, so they came and gave us a try."

For those accustomed to their family's spicier renditions of gumbo and jambalaya, Cajun restaurants didn't always get it right.

"We really enjoy cooking," says Foux, 31. "Tasting poor imitations is a pretty big turn-off, and so most of us don't even bother with Cajun restaurants outside of Louisiana because of that."

The Bayou festival — and a nationally-known chef coming to town — may open the door to more authentic Cajun cuisine in Charlotte. In January, celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse opened e2 emeril's eatery on the Levine Avenue of the Arts in uptown. The restaurant, which serves New Orleans and Southern style dishes, has been a welcome addition to the city's cultural scene.

"With Emeril coming to town, and his love of the cuisine of New Orleans, that may be the genesis of bringing it back to some degree," Teiss says.

Free Event. $25 adult pass is for the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. Children ages 5-12 years old are half price on all-you-can-eat. Independence Park, 300 Hawthorne Ave., from noon to 8 p.m.

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