Crawfish beignets. Cuban sandwich. Soft-shell crab po-boy. Fried crab cake. White chocolate bread pudding.
For as long as I can remember, those have been among my go-to dishes at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. If I’m sharing, I’ll often add crawfish sacks, fried eggplant and crabmeat stuffed shrimp to that list.
Yes, I’m one of those who considers the food as much of a draw as the music, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
This year, however, I may be steering clear of the food booths and reaching into my backpack for a piece of, uh, mouth-watering matzah. That’s because Passover falls smack in the middle of Jazz Fest, leaving Passover-observant Jews with only one or two days to enjoy the festival fare.
Passover, which begins at sundown Friday, commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. As they rushed to escape, there was no time to let their bread rise — which is why Jews give up bread during Passover.
But the eight-day observance (seven if you’re Reform) is a bit more complicated than just giving up bread. It’s all about the chametz — anything that contains flour or other leavened products made from wheat, rye, oats, barley and spelt; and for some, corn, rice, peanuts and legumes.
While strict observers of Passover completely rid their homes of chametz and eat only “kosher for Passover” foods, others are more flexible, which makes the whole Jazz Fest thing that much more of a challenge.
Some may give up corn but not Coca-Cola, which contains corn syrup. Some may live on salads for the week but use regular salad dressing, which contains vinegar, which might be made of grain.
A narrow window
This year, Reform Jews have only two days to enjoy the fare at Jazz Fest (the second Saturday and Sunday), Orthodox and Conservative Jews only one (the second Sunday), said Rabbi Bob Loewy, of Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie.
“The first weekend is out for eating the usual foods, whatever that might be for people,” Loewy said. “Though Passover does not begin until Friday evening, the prohibition on eating starts earlier in the day as we are to be removing chametz, including from our bodies.”
Of course, observances vary from one individual to the next, from those who refrain only from bread to those who adhere completely to the dietary rules, including the traditional laws of kashrut (kosher) — no shellfish or pork and no mixing of milk and meat.
While most foods at Jazz Fest are out, offerings such as the fruit salad, spinach and artichoke casserole and Caribbean fish might be options. But it’s best to check with the vendors about what ingredients they contain to make sure they are “legal.”
“No bread, no pasta, nothing with the grains leaves slim eating possibilities at the Fair Grounds,” Loewy said. “As much as Jews love Jazz Fest, my hope is that they will enjoy the music, but refrain from those food items that are prohibited, at least for this Passover week, as a matter of Jewish self-respect.
“Besides,” he added, “most of the food is available 51 other weeks of the year in Greater New Orleans.”
A well-deserved dinner
Jazz Fest regular Roselle Ungar couldn’t agree more. She said surviving the fest during Passover means tuning out the food and concentrating on the music and crafts. Ungar is Conservative and a strict observer of the Passover dietary laws.
“It’s tough,” she said. “I will drink a lot of water because you have to stay hydrated. And I may bring in some nuts and some small snacks. One year I brought in a couple of pieces of matzah.
“You just have to resign yourself,” she said. “This is a time to reflect, to abstain from something that you would normally eat, to acknowledge the importance of this time in our history.”
That doesn’t mean she will completely do without. On the second Saturday, Ungar said, she plans to pick up her favorite dish — the fried chicken — on way out of the Fair Grounds. By the time she gets home, Passover will be over.
“There’s nothing like that fried chicken,” she said. “That will be my dinner.”