The big acts, the vibe they stir and the crowds they draw all change at Jazz Fest from day to day and set to set. That’s part of the appeal. Another part is what never changes.
Whether it’s Irma Thomas or the Red Hot Chili Peppers on stage, you know the same Jazz Fest diehards will set up at their same spots, hoist the same flags, party with the same friends, maybe even don the same outfits.
New Orleanians bring their own ironclad rituals to the event, and of course, the food is in that number.
Jazz Fest regulars have their personal must-eat dishes, and first-time visitors have bucket lists of dishes they’ve heard all about. Some people know the first thing they’ll have heading in. Others plot which one they’ll have last as a final taste of the fest. Some people ferry certain dishes out. Foil-wrapped crawfish bread travels well; I even know people who deploy freezer bags to bring servings of crawfish Monica to friends stuck tending bar or minding the shop or who couldn’t afford a ticket.
This isn’t typical festival food. It is specifically Jazz Fest food. And one reason why rituals arise around these dishes is because they rarely change.
Last year was something of an outlier with 12 new dishes and one new vendor among the 70-plus vendors around the Fair Grounds. This year’s changes are more on par for the course. Marie’s Sugar Dumplings at Congo Square has a new dessert — a bacon pecan square. Over by the Kids Stage, Fireman Mike’s Kitchen has a new strawberry and yogurt trifle. And that’s it.
This approach is unique among local festivals. And it stands in contrast to the tempo of change around the city’s larger culinary scene, where so many new eateries and food ventures dot the landscape. At Jazz Fest, however, this evenness of the annual options is resolutely by design.
Jazz Fest officials like to describe the food line-up curated, and they’re loath to fiddle with success. It’s also the nature of the logistical beast of feeding hundreds of thousands of people outdoors for seven days.
Vendors don’t usually run out until the end, and they serve up their dishes at the grab-and-go pace of true street food. Anyone who’s spent 10 or 15 minutes waiting for a food truck to field their order can appreciate the efficiency of the seasoned teams behind the booth and their honed processes.
Jazz Fest isn’t the place to look for lots of new flavors and different vendors each year. It’s a place for old favorites. But no matter what the plan or intention, change will come, even for Jazz Fest food.
Plenty of vendors have been at it for more than 20 years, others more than 30 years. These are largely family-run businesses, and surely the next generation will carry the mantle for some. But it’s inevitable that others will depart. The next decade is likely to see a lot of change.
There will be openings for new vendors, and they will bring new dishes. Maybe new festival food traditions will take root around them. But that’s not this year. This year is one to enjoy just as it has been, and just as it is.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.