There’s more than one way to sing the blues, as the wide-ranging lineup of performers for this weekend’s Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival demonstrates. There are plenty of ways to cook barbecue, too, and once again this year festival organizers have selected food vendors to show the diversity of flavor and tradition united under the barbecue banner.
The difference this year, however, is how much of this food connects to Louisiana, and in many cases to New Orleans, neither of which has been considered a bastion for barbecue.
“Louisiana and barbecue are usually just not mentioned together,” said Jonathan Walker, one of this year’s vendors. “But we’re still in the South, and the South is barbecue. I think a lot of what we do relates to barbecue, but comes from more of a French and Creole tradition.”
Walker and his family run the restaurant Walker’s Southern Style BBQ in New Orleans East and produce the cochon de lait po-boy, perennially among the most popular food items at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. They’ll serve the same sandwich, packed with smoky pork and a creamy Creole mustard sauce, at the Blues and BBQ Festival, and they’ll use the same meat on nachos with queso sauce and hot peppers.
The annual free festival is hosted by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit behind Jazz Fest. This year, there are 14 food vendors on the savory side (joined by three dessert vendors for pralines, cakes, pies, gelato and chocolates). Their approaches to barbecue cover a swath of flavor, not all of which adheres to the traditional barbecue template of smoke, meat and indirect heat.
For instance, there’s island-style jerk chicken and pork from Boswell’s Jamaican Cuisine, and even grilled vegetables with chili tomato peanut sauce from Carmo, a downtown Brazilian restaurant, which provokes the possibility of “vegan barbecue.”
Smoked boudin links from the Uptown restaurant Saucy’s BBQ, Creole chaurice sausage from the Bywater’s the Joint and barbecue rib tips in a thick, peppery sauce from longtime Marigny soul food spot the Praline Connection are other examples that speak more directly to local customs.
Vance Vaucresson, a regular on the local festival circuit with his Vaucresson’s Sausage Co., believes the definition of barbecue is expanding to encompass more traditions and he sees more people using the barbecue framework to express their cooking creativity.
“In New Orleans we boil seafood, we create roux, we fry, we smother things over time. Smoked meats didn’t really have much to do with the Creole tradition,” he said. “But there are a lot of ways to understand barbecue, and the way I look at it we’ve been barbecuing for generations.”
For this weekend’s festival, for instance, Vaucresson is bringing a BBQ chicken sausage made with chicken thigh meat, seared on the grill and basted with barbecue sauce.
“Chicken is just a standard at our barbecues,” he said. “So being a sausage maker, this is saying, ‘Let’s see if we can put together something that gives people these flavors in a different way.’ ”
Barbecue expert Steve Raichlen, author of “The Barbecue Bible” and host of the PBS series “Primal Grill,” says the regional boundaries and divisions that once defined barbecue regions across America are no longer so rigid.
“It’s part of the globalization of our age,” he said. “That’s also sweeping the barbecue world.”
Great barbecue is now being practiced in areas where it has not been traditional, he said. And while Louisiana has not been on the map for barbecue, Raichen agrees that many of the particular cooking customs here lend themselves to barbecue interpretations, especially those emanating from the smoker.
“Andouille and tasso are part of the great American barbecue family,” he said.
Raichen will be in town next month for the debut of a new barbecue exhibit at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum called “The Trail of Smoke and Fire,” for which he is guest curator. Significantly, one of the items in the exhibit representing Louisiana is a “Cajun microwave,” the compact pig roaster popular for making cochon de lait.
Opelousas native Troy Brocato is another Blues & BBQ Festival vendor making an argument for a Louisiana read on barbecue.
For the event weekend, he’s revving up the country-style gumbo he normally serves at Brocato’s Po-Boys & Catering (inside Metry Café & Bar in Old Metairie) to be a thrice-smoky rendition with andouille, tasso and smoked chicken.
“Where I grew up every little store or gas station has their own smoked meats, but they don’t necessarily call it barbecue,” Brocato said. “I just cook the way I was taught since I was a kid. It’s slow and low and let it go.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.