Good food festival in Gheens

Help sought from a higher authority to help shrimping crisis
June 6, 2018
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June 6, 2018
Help sought from a higher authority to help shrimping crisis
June 6, 2018
School board member mourned
June 6, 2018

Every year in the small town of Gheens, tens of thousands flock for a 3-day celebration that funds the beating heart of the community.

The Vacherie Gheens Community Center held its 45th annual Bon Mange’ Festival Saturday. Bands played swamp-pop and country music as attendees danced and ate food. The community rallies each year to make this event happen, and this is displayed by the entire staff being composed of volunteers as well as most of the food being donated by local farmers and fishermen.

“I’ve been helping here as long as I can remember,” said Ramsey Keller stirring a large pot of cracklin’s with a metal paddle behind the center. “Even as a kid, like my kids are here, we used to come after school and we’d help set up tables and chairs – been doing it ever since.”

Keller had been soldiering the pot since early the previous morning, and only left his post for a short time to visit his children’s sporting events, returning immediately after. He said he went to bed at 1am and returned to the pot at 6am Saturday morning. He expected Sunday to be the same and In total, he expected to cook and sell about 300lbs or more of cracklin’s.

A short distance away from Keller, volunteers rushed between two kitchens. The president of the center, Jeremy Breaux, conducted this orchestra of Cajun cuisine. Pots of jambalaya, potato salad, white beans, grillads, catfish, shrimp, vats of gumbo (both chicken sausage and seafood), and even a separate outside grill was employed just to cook hamburgers.

As volunteers bustled around the kitchens, new people would walk in from the parking lot. The kitchen would greet these individuals by name, and Breaux would quickly set these individuals to work. He explained that Bon Mange’ translates to “Good food,” and the long line of customers just outside the kitchen seemed to testify to the kitchen team’s prowess.

“Our organization is a non-profit organization. All the money we make goes back into the community center,” said Breaux between directing stations. As he spoke, his son came in asking to purchase tickets for jambalaya; handing him a $5, Breaux sent him off and continued, “Also, a lot of the food we cook is donated from people inside the community.”

According to Breaux’s estimates, about half the year’s budget is generated by the 20-thousand or more who attend this festival, but also said that recreation pays a large portion because they rent the facility. People renting the space for weddings also helps in the funding.

Breaux said that the surrounding community donates a large portion of the food: eggs, potatoes, crabs, catfish, “all of that helps for us not having to spend a lot of money and the money we make goes back into the community.”

A short distance from the line of hungry patrons sat two young women with jewelry-studded crowns. A third joined in as they spoke, “We are the raiding royalty of the festival this year,” said Kristen Hebert, Ms. Queen.

She was joined by the Teen-Ms. Queen, Juliet Delatte and Shelby Santiago, the 30th Ms. Gheens Bon Mange’.

Hebert explained that they were the ambassadors of the festival, traveling throughout the Louisiana area to raise awareness of the event.

“Basically, what we do is travel around Louisiana, to different parishes, festivals and events, representing the Gheens’ Bon Mange’ festival,” said Hebert. “So other people can see us, hear about us, and come join the festival this weekend.”

To become Raiding Royalty, Hebert explained, the three had to compete in a 2-stage process: first was an interview and second an on-stage contest. The interview involved a panel of judges and gauged how the contestant handled themselves. The second half was performed on stage. The contestants modeled formal wear, answered questions, and had to create an advertisement jingle.

“Pretty much, the contest is based on how well you can represent a place,” added Santiago.

While many of the attendees sat close to the upbeat music, at the back of the building sat a woman, head in hand, with a bitter-sweet smile. Her name: Nell O’Gwynn.

At, , O’Gwynn had begun attending the festival at it’s founding in 1973 when it was still known as the “Gheens Day Festival.”

She said she attends the festival for the music, favoring the country over anything else, especially the saxophone. She said her husband, whom she married in 56, had a hand in founding the center.

“My husband had a hand in getting it going,” she said. “Him and 2 other guys from here got together and got the ball rolling.”

According to O’Gwynn, James “Melvin” O’Gwynn, Gary Dominique and Alvin Dominique got together with the Alter Society, the Ward 8 Riding Club and businesses to start the center.

Although she and her husband moved away to Texas in 1982, for his work in the oilfield, she moved back after his passing in 2016.

“Looking forward to a good time: dancing and the food,” said Peter Trosclair, of Houma, who heard about the festival on the radio (94.9) and was attending for the first time.