Photos by Gus Escanelle & Kathy Bradshaw
Culinary utopia; It begins with my first stop upon entering the gate. The day is beginning, awakening the Voudouin serpents Ayida-Wedo and Damballah; I am as exuberant as a puppy with a brand new toy. I head to the Lagniappe Stage where the Raw Oyster Bar is just opening for business. It’s an annual first stop, a personal ritual as well as a spiritual blessing for the bounty of joy that I’m about to experience. J and M Seafood is the company that lays out the bivalves and beer is the drink of choice, of course. I get a dozen icy cold oysters and the biggest brew available and - with reverence - pause, sending good vibes to all the people that I know (and those that I don’t) who cannot be here. And now, having paid my respects to life, the Universe and everything, my day of music, food and Fest gluttony begins.
Out in the weather, (sun, rain, fog, heat, cold, whatever) I’m a man on the move; I rarely stop for more than a few minutes, usually the longest I pause in any one location is for food. I HAVE to have a Cochon de Lait po-boy, have to, I’ve waited all year for it and I save the experience for the Fest. From Wanda Walker’s Love at First Bite stand; they must have a blueprint, because the consistency of this product is unwavering. Year after year. Kissingly sweet dressed cabbage, mustard and horseradish dance in your mouth as you bite through the French bread and you’ll find yourself smiling through the sauce and the slaw and the crumbs. Later on the beach (the track itself), you’ll pass where Wanda’s workers will be smoking a ton of pig. Yum.
Years ago, Allen Toussaint advised Brett Anderson what to eat at the Fest: “anything with crawfish.” Call that preaching to the choir. Crawfish sausaged, sacked, boiled, mushroom stuffed and strudel-ed. Crawfish po-boy, remoulade-ed, enchilada-ed, bisqued and Monica-ed (sounds like a Toussaint song, eh?); I would feel sorry for the millions of wee critters who gave their lives, but them tasting so damn good kicks my compassion to the curb!
And still, I’m a culinary snob; with over 70 venues to choose from, the list of food booths at the Fest that I pass up is considerably longer than the stands that I favor. I won’t get something that I cook at home and I won’t have anything that I have on a regular basis in my local eateries. The Jama Jama and fried plantains from Bennichin is one exception. It’s a dish that I never tire of. Angelo Brocato’s spumoni is another; also the Trout Baquet from L’il Dizzy’s Café. I think that if I pass them by without stopping, I’ll be struck by lightning. I wish that Verde Mart would have a stand for their All That Jazz sandwich…. I’d road block for that.
Alligator Sauce Piquant from Fireman Mikes is another ‘must have’, dark deep and religious in taste, just to be eating that ugly, ill tempered and slow cooked mother sends tickles and giggles to your tummy; You haven’t had the Pheasant, Quail and Andouille Gumbo from Prejean’s? Shut the front door! Get your assets over there and know what rapture tastes like: too thick to drink and too thin to plow, decadent, mouth filling and breath catching; it’ll make you want to nail your foot to the ground and walk in circles!
Just to be clear - all this time of eating - I am still groovin’ to the music, diggin’ the crowds and struttin’ my stuff; as Girlfriend says: there’s no shame in my game! I’ll peer over people’s shoulders and ask them what they’re eating; I’ll stop and follow a scent of pit smoke that leads me to Down Home Creole Cooking for Barbecue Ribs and/ or Turkey Wings on my way to the Jazz Tent. Spoiler alert- there are never enough napkins for the saucy, spicy and downright sexy repast that mandates a good sucking on dem bones.
Drinking: after that first beer, I switch to the Rosemint Herbal Iced tea (Sunshine Concessions) or the Strawberry Lemonade (New Orleans La) and on my early afternoon break, I’ll slip on over to the Café Du Monde stand for some Café au Lait and, of course, Beignets. AND speaking of beignets... If you don’t have a Praline Stuffed Beignet… (Loretta’s Pralines) I will tell your mama! Biting through that hot beignet into the warm sensuous praline is akin to a French kiss in the back seat of a Chevy Impala, circa 1958.
Now, before you call me food booth cowboy, I need to tell you that I attend four and sometimes five days of Fest; so, these food excursions and culinary diversions occur over time and not all in the same day. I’d love to have a Brass Pass, however, that lottery ticket has yet to be purchased (sigh). That said, somewhere in the day, I’ll get some Fresh Roasted Jumbo Peanuts (Jumbo Peanut Company) just to support those tireless groundnut gladiators who roam the grounds. Later in the early afternoon, I’ll question my decision to put off the Soft Shell Crab Po Boy from Galley Seafood Restaurant; the longish line usually deters me, but, with a pacifier of Bacon Smoked Collard Greens from Vaucresson, I can be patient; I can wait to nibble on those crunchy little spider-like legs and then full speed ahead into the pickles and hot sauce heaven, followed by the ever popular Mango Freeze - from our local listener supported music station WWOZ- just as a palate cleanser before going back into the fray.
Also, there are food demonstrations whipped up by our favorite and locally famous chefs and restaurants. A couple of years ago, I sat at a Curried Cauliflower demo by Mondo Restaurant. They even gave the recipe and with a bit of mathematical manipulation (the recipe started with six heads of cauliflower), I gladly added it to my home cooking repertoire. The demonstrations are held at two stages both at the Grandstand, one indoors and one out. Also, Zatarain’s does a big Louisiana Crawfish Boil at noon, both Fridays, prepare to be impressed.
One final item: gratuities at the food stands are welcome, appropriate and appreciated; these folks are working 10 to 12 hours a day, it’s their little boost of income. And showing your respect for what they do by passing a buck across the counter will reserve you a special place in Jazz Fest heaven and, you know, we all want to be in that number.