Held every Thanksgiving week, and coinciding with the opening of duck season in Arkansas, the city of Stuttgart, rice and duck capital of the world, hosts the Wings Over the Prairie Festival and World Championship Duck Calling contest. It’s the largest outdoor expo in the mid-south promoting the sport of duck hunting…but I didn’t go to any of that.
I went to Stuttgart for ‘Duck Gumbo,’ the World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-off. Rumor has it this event was once touted by Playboy as one of the best parties in the south, and it’s frequently referred to as the ‘Redneck Mardi Gras.’ You must be 21 to get in, but that’s not enough. This party should come with a warning label: NOT FOR AMATEURS.
I’d been issued all kinds of admonitions about this event, mostly from first-time or one-time partygoers. However, those in the real know: my veterinarian who’s from ‘Sugartown’ (that’s Stuttgart without the T’s), a handful of duck hunters, and a girlfriend from Lonoke who’s been 22 years in a row, all assured me I’d have a blast. So, with a designated driver in tow- you’ll need one of those- off I went.
Imagine a 100×220 plain white tent in the middle of a rice production facility parking lot.
It’s completely conspicuous, and there’s a line of attendees in denim and boots waiting to show their IDs and purchase their wristbands for admittance. The hugs and the handshakes have already started as old and new friends meet. Pulling up to the tent are limos and party buses, and although Producers Rice Mill is located a few blocks off Park Avenue, this ain’t New York. You can tell by the distinct lack of high heels, and the rows and rows of trucks in the parking lot.
Once inside, the crowd is shoulder-to-shoulder, but there’s no pushing and shoving, and you won’t see any fights (at least I didn’t).
With Southern manners and Southern drawl, they’re uttering, “Excuse me,” and “Pardon me,” and asking the people behind them in the beer line, “Did you need another beer?” “Yes, please.” Then beer tickets are passed between strangers.
The other thing frequently heard is, “You need a sticker.”
‘Stickering,’ the act of placing a sticker on the rear of a woman, is the grand ritual of Duck Gumbo.
Stickering started many years ago when one of the cook-off participants made stickers promoting the name of their booth. People sampling that gumbo got a sticker. This caught on with other participants, and after several years, and many beers, stickers began appearing on butts. The marketing game is to get your gumbo stickers on the best hind-ends. To do this, you pass out your stickers to the men-folk and count on them to use their best judgment. I know this sounds pretty sexist to some of you, but I assure you that most of the women in attendance know of this custom when they walk in the tent, and for many, having a lot of stickers is a source of pride. In fact, I saw women not only asking for stickers, but also bending over so they could be appropriately applied.
I was warned that the ceremony of placement can get out of hand when stickering turns to hard smacking, then groping, etc. but not once did I feel harassed or marginalized, and no one put a sticker on me without asking or at least announcing the forthcoming act. I actually ended up with a custom-made pageant sash of stickers (and a bourbon and water) from one of the booth participants. Now, that’s flattery!
The booths are really the best part of this whole thing, and honestly, these good-natured participants are the ones that make the event what it is. They aren’t just serving up gumbo; they’re serving up Southern hospitality and fun. With themed booths like ‘Pirates of the Prairie’ and ‘Jumbo Gumbo,’ they display their trophy’s from years past on multi-storied structures that look like adult tree houses, and toss beads to the crowd. They pass out samples of gumbo and other snacks, and if you’re lucky, they invite you in or up to join them. It’s a rollicking good time with some serious cooking.
More than 50 teams compete for the title of World’s Best Duck Gumbo, and more than 3500 people attend this annual event.
Is it really the best party in the South? I don’t know; I haven’t been to them all. But if you’re looking for a good time in the middle of rice country, with a bunch of “if it flies, it dies” duck hunting Southerners, and you don’t mind a lot of drinking, and a good bit of rowdy, then you’re in the right place. Park the prudes at the door, and leave the jealous boyfriends at home; gather a group of downhome friends, cram yourselves into a party bus, and head to Duck Gumbo. I’ll see y’all there!