Out on the prairie in the heart of Acadiana sits the tiny old railroad town of Rayne. Originally called Pouppeville, the citizens decided to rename their town Rayne in honor of the engineer who laid the tracks. The little Cajun town has a population of about 8,000 as well as a big obsession with frogs.
Breaux Bridge is the crawfish capital of the world. Crowley is the rice capital of the world. Rayne is the frog capital of the world.
Rayne celebrates its amphibian history with an annual frog festival where queens pose with frogs, not princes. And frogs compete in races and jumping contests while their less fortunate amphibian cousins end up being served as fried frog legs.
Is your interest piqued? Well, lucky for you, the Rayne Frog Festival is happening soon. Ever seen a frog derby? Want to try frog legs? The Frog Festival is the place to check out all things froggy as well as loads of other fun activities.
With the 51st Annual Rayne Frog Festival happening May 10-14, 2023, I was thinking, why is Rayne the frog capital of the world? Obviously, having a bunch of frogs is one reason but that’s not the main reason Rayne earned the title.
It seems that everywhere you look in the Cajun city of Rayne, you see frogs. They’re on the sidewalks, in front of stores, the police station and fire house, and the courthouse. And about two dozen frog murals are painted on the sides of buildings.
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The festival started in 1973, but the town’s official title as the frog capital of the world started in the late 1800s.
Rayne’s frog industry beginnings
In the 1880s, Donat Pucheu, a Frenchman chef and adventurer made his way to Louisiana and spent some time in Rayne. He noticed how plentiful the local bullfrog population was so he started capturing them and selling them to New Orleans restaurants.
In France, frog legs have been consumed since at least the 12th century and records show that the Chinese have been eating them since the first century. They were very popular with Catholic French monks who considered them fish and could, therefore, eat them on meatless Fridays.
At the cusp of the 20th century, frog legs were a new and exciting delicacy in the US. Rayne’s frogs were so delectable, so juicy and muscular, that word spread quickly.
The dish made its way around the world but the city officially received its title from New York. A restaurant in the Big Apple named Sardi’s called the delicacy as Frog Legs from Rayne, Louisiana. Frog Capital of the World. The name has since stuck.
French businessman Jacques Weil and his brother Edmond were in Rayne snacking on the amphibian’s hind legs. They enjoyed them so much that they decided to start a business selling frog legs. They were shipping the locally harvested frogs to restaurants in France where they were considered a delicacy.
The Louisiana Frog Company
By the 1940s, the Rayne-based Louisiana Frog Company Plant was the largest exporter of live frogs for gastronomic purposes in the world. In 1937 alone, it shipped over half a million frogs. Some days, the company’s hunters and suppliers brought in 10,000 frogs. The largest ever weighed 3 pounds.
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The Louisiana Frog Company was also known for its canned Frog a la sauce Piquante. The company included a branch that sold hand-caught (so as not to damage them) frogs for breeding purposes. These frogs are Rana Catesbiana commonly known as the American Bullfrog. But the giant variety found in the south are called Louisiana Jumbo Bullfrog.
Revitalizing the industry
In 1946, Rayne hosted its first frog derby where young women dressed frogs up as jockeys and raced them. But in the 1970s, the frog trade was in steep decline. To uphold its reputation as the frog capital, Rayne locals decided to expand the Frog Derby into the town’s first Frog Festival.
Hundreds of locals came out to the first Rayne Frog Festival in 1973 and they still show up today. (Some of them have come every single year, for 51 years.) And eventually, frog murals started popping up all over town so that Rayne can celebrate its froggy heritage year-round.
Today, the frog export companies are gone, but not the frogs. The flat countryside near the southwesten Louisiana city of Rayne is marked with low levees that confine foot-deep water in crawfish ponds. These ponds are the perfect breeding ground for large bullfrogs. And nighttime is the right time for catching frogs.
Small aluminum boats that crawl through the ponds on wheels during the day when they are used by crawfishermen to run their nets double as a frogging transportation at night. The frogs hang out along the edges of commercial crawfish ponds. Their white throads give them away in the spotlight. A good night of frogging can fill a small flatboat.
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These Rayne bullfrogs have another claim to frog fame. Twenty years before NASA had frogs floating in a space shuttle experiment, two bullfrogs from Rayne made a giant leap into orbit in 1970. NASA strapped the frogs inside a tiny capsule and launched them into space on a one-way mission to test the effect of weightlessness on their inner ears which are similar to those of humans. Calling it Orbiting Frog Otolith, the test was a success and NASA said goodbye to the Cajun frogs.
2023 Rayne Frog Festival
Although Rayne doesn’t produce frog legs anymore, the city still honors its claim to fame. The Frog Festival is part county fair with local food vendors and rides and part French Acadian cultural exposition with three full days packed with live music and much of it Cajun. And of course, there are plenty of frog legs to eat!
Local high school artists compete to have their artwork become the festival poster, vendors sell crafts, the frog derby is still going strong, and there is always a frog cook-off, a frog-jumping contest, a dance contest, a grand parade, and Frog Festival pageants. It’s a highly unique, full-weekend festival that is definitely worth a quick deviation off the beaten path (or, ahem, off of I-10).
The 2023 Rayne Frog Festival is slated with a full schedule including music, delicious food, a signature festival drink, and souvenir cup commemorating 51 years of tradition, arts and crafts show, carnival rides, frog cook-off, frog-eating contest, folklore tent, frog racing and jumping, and a few surprises along the way.
I loved walking the streets and taking photos; the posted images are just a sampling of all the frogs to be found in Rayne. They made me smile and reminded me that life is too short to take too seriously. How can you take things too seriously when you are constantly surrounded by frogs? Kudos to the citizens of Rayne for keeping their sense of humor and bringing a lot of joy to the folks! It makes you want to jump for joy!
Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
Goodbye joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, well have good fun on the bayou
—Lyrics and recording by Hank Williams, Sr., 1954