No, the Isleton Crawdad Festival is not leaving Isleton

Isleton at sunset. Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Some confusion has engulfed the internet about where the most-historic crawdad festival in the West is happening this summer; and despite conflicting reports, the action is indeed going down in the eclectic century-and-half-old river haven that bears its name.

Of course, confusion is nothing to new Isleton – to the point where most residents can laugh about it.      

There was a time, just eight years ago, when some Sacramento politicos were forecasting the end of this beautifully threadbare tribute to immigrant farmers and fishermen. Between 2006 and 2016, scandals, debacles, feuds and fiscal meltdowns had put the county’s biggest stop along the river in very dangerous waters. But Isleton is a survivor. Historically, the city’s withstood floods, soldiered through epidemics and weathered events as tense as the Tong Wars; and similar to Locke, Walnut Grove, Hood, Courtland and Clarksburg, for 16 years it has also been the target of an ongoing state government effort to disenfranchise and de-populate the entire Delta community –and collapse its ecosystem and farming power – in order to further enrich billion-dollar Big Ag corporations down south.

All of that is to say Isleton’s hardy collection of personalities have always been tough: They were not going to let “the Delta’s Little Paris” go down without a fight. 

And they haven’t.

Lately, the city has been reinvigorated. Day-trippers can enjoy Isleton’s rushing river breezes while eating an incredible brioche “zombie” pastry at The McBoodery, or drinking at its Dodge City mirage of a Chinese opium den called The Mei Wah Beer Room, or sitting down with a molten-Mozzarella calzone filled with pepperoni and ham at Manny’s Barzzeria. The city’s latest edition, Jack Jack’s 160, is an independent coffeehouse built into a vintage gas station with the feel of “American Graffiti” meets the café at “Friends.” And, of course, Isleton still has its channel-side Victorian mansion holding a steakhouse and Chinese diner known as Peter’s. The staff at Delta Boyz Dispensary & Smoking Lounge have also brought a lot of energy into town.

But until recently, a question still getting bandied about our region was, ‘What happened to the famous Isleton Crawdad Festival?”

Many have vaguely heard that the city lost its marquee event in 2008. 

A promotor put on crawdad festival in Isleton last year. That individual’s company is moving its event to Cal Expo in 2024, now simply dubbing it ‘The Crawdad Festival.’ While promoting those upcoming festivities on Instagram, Team Cal Expo characterized the situation as “the Crawdad Festival has moved from Isleton to Cal Expo.” That’s technically true insomuch as the upper-case, proper-noun phrasing refers to the festival’s new name. However, people in Isleton say that the posts have caused a ton of bewilderment and head-scratching: The fact is they’re throwing their own crawdad festival – thee Isleton Crawdad Festival – on the very same weekend, June 15 and 16.   

Photo by Alissa Yue

Never ones to give up, the Isletonians are bringing back a major personality to help throw their own bayou bash this time around. For for the first time since Cheers was on the air, Louisiana Sue Ramon is back at the helm of Isleton’s shell-boiling, blues-blistering madness. 

Ramon worked with Ralph and Charli Hand to create the very first Isleton Crawdad Festival back in 1986. She remembers those early conversations they had inside The Hotel Del Rio bar. It wasn’t long before a delegation from Isleton traveled to Louisiana’s oldest section of Cajun Country, striking up a deal to be a sister-city with an Acadian cooking hub called Breaux Bridge. 

“They’re still sister cities,” Ramon noted this week. “After that, we brought Chef John David Folse out from Louisiana. He was the first guest chef. They’re now trying to bring it back to what it was; so, getting ‘Ralph the Baker,’ this YouTube sensation out of New Orleans, is a big part of that.”   

Ralph the Baker’ will be Isleton’s celebrity cook for what’s going down in June. He’s a rustic, crawfishing-boiling sauce-pan man from the Pelican State, one who happens to have more than a million subscribers on YoutTube. His runaway success reflects the kind of vibe that Isleton itself enjoyed back in 1988, when Ramon, the Hands and the city’s chamber managed to throw an event that drew 150,000 visitors to the Delta. 

The effort to give Isleton a truly localized festival this year was spearheaded by Kailani Haro and Sebastian Maldonado from Delta Boyz Dispensary. 

“We really want to emphasize that we’re bringing the Crawdad Festival back to its roots,” Haro said. “We’ve created a huge plan, and we’ve been working on it since November.”

Haro stressed that the festival space and seating will be far more expansive, as well as its parking and shuttling options, than the separate and unaffiliated event that happened in Isleton last year. Isleton’s crawdad gala will have over 30 different food vendors, not to mention 16 different musical acts performing on three different stages. That includes one of the hottest new acts coming up from Southern culture, Ruben Moreno & Zydeco Re-Evolution. The headliner for the weekend is R&B legend the Sugar Hill Gang. Chef Toby M. Tayeh from Sharky’s Chicken and Fish in Vallejo will be the mastermind behind the actual crawdad dishes getting passed around. 

“The crawdad festival is so engrained in Isleton’s culture,” Haro pointed out. “Everyone here has very fond memories of it, so we’re determined to bring it back to the good old days again.” 

This is an opinion-based editorial by Sacramento News & Review.

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