Engagin' Cajuns

With aqua-driven economies and permanent-vacation mentalities, you'd think Fort Lauderdale and New Orleans would be sister cities. These are two places where everyone has a tan, a boat, and a drinking problem. Both cities indulge happily in things cultural, from buskers to giant festivals. Both offer fantastic food. Both enjoy an abundance of warm weather.

But in truth, the two places are in some ways polar opposites: different cultures (especially music) and different foods (shrimp versus crawfish, for one example). Take black beans and rice versus red beans and rice -- how could two such similar dishes taste so different? Besides that, everyone in South Florida should be screaming "New Orleans sucks!" as the Crescent City's Hornets faced Miami's Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs. But South Floridians are too cynical to simply hate a place. Oh, the hate part is fine, but it's no reason not to steal and then celebrate the New Orleans Zeitgeist. Not only that, South Florida has to go one step further and try to top the big N.O. at its own game, and we don't mean basketball.

Beginning Friday, Fort Lauderdale transforms for three days into N'Awlins, and goes that place one better with the Cajun/Zydeco Crawfish Festival, what local civic boosters swear is the biggest outdoor celebration of crawfish around (backed up with zydeco music and a ton of other stuff). Maybe someday New Orleans will host the world's biggest Florida lobster festival. Better be special if they want to compete.

First of all, Fort Lauderdale's fest will celebrate its twelfth year, solid proof of successfully executing a fine idea. Secondly, consider what's in store besides that sweet, spicy, fiery food called crawfish, so tasty that many people break off the head and suck it to get every last bit of bayou bang.

What's in store on Mother's Day weekend includes gumbo cookoffs, crawfish races, more than 50 arts and crafts vendors, a vast selection of beer, a large children's area, and watermelon sacrifices. Not only watermelons will suffer -- this must be the deadest weekend of the year in New Orleans because almost every great band in that city will be performing on one of three stages. Many of the musicians -- Terrance Simien, Chubby Carrier, and Marc Savoy, to name a few -- will also cook up their favorite recipes during Musicians in the Kitchen. Each stage will feature dance floors, and there will be a number of dance-oriented events, including after-hours parties at Last Call.

With more than 35,000 pounds of crawfish being served, South Floridians can be proud to suck too.

The Twelfth Annual Cajun/Zydeco Crawfish Festival takes place from 4:30 to 11:30 p.m. Friday, May 7; 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, May 8; and 10:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Sunday, May 9 at the Fort Lauderdale Festival Site, 1201 NW 55th St. Daily admission is $20, a two-day pass costs $30, and a three-day pass costs $40. Call 954-828-5934 or visit www.fortlauderdale.gov/festivals/cajun04/index.htm

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Greg Baker