The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell can seem like a feast for all the senses. But only one of those comes with an absolute physical limit built in.
If you’re disciplined, fleet of foot and prepared to leave mid-set, there’s no telling how many bands you can experience on a tour around the Fair Grounds. You can admire art and crafts, cultural displays and the general vistas of New Orleanians and their guests enjoying themselves in a festive mode to your heart’s content.
But the sad fact remains that you can only eat so much food. That means you have to choose, and choose wisely, from the spread before you offered by more than 70 stands and vendors around the grounds.
In this way, then, it’s something of a comfort that the food options really don’t change much. This year is considered something special, with a dozen new choices and a single new vendor, but that doesn’t exactly amount to a sea change, and that’s just fine.
People who embrace Jazz Fest imbue it with their own customs and traditions, and certain foods are part of the experience.
Still, the new always draws curiosity, and that’s why I spent the first day of Jazz Fest last week barnstorming each of the booths with new offerings. Below is a tour of the best of what’s new and also some picks from the roster of classics.
Where there’s smoke…
Squeal Bar-B-Q brought not only the most significant change to the food line up with its new booth at Food Area I, but some very hearty options as well. If you’re looking for one stop to fill you up, this would be a good pick. The BBQ brisket and the BBQ chicken sandwiches are each built on oversized French bread rolls and packed generously with meat and crunchy coleslaw. A side dish of collard greens carried a good dose of bacon. Pro tip: fork some of your greens over the chicken for your own customized, bittersweet sandwich.
Rolling with it
J&M Seafood, which runs the oyster bar in the Grand Stand by the Lagniappe stage, adds the crawfish roll, which is like a bayou country corollary to the New England lobster roll. The actual roll in this case is yellow-hued and slightly sweet, like a Hawaiian sweet roll shaped, filled simply with a good amount of crawfish salad — whole, spicy, vividly flavored tails in a loose, creamy dressing with bits of celery and green onion.
Across the grounds, at Food Area II, the shrimp remoulade po-boy from Food for Thought is another new cool seafood sandwich. The shrimp were taut and well-textured under the sharp horseradish bite of the remoulade, and a layer of slaw added more crunch, through the roll was more like a hoagie loaf than po-boy bread.
Links with a past
Vaucresson’s Sausage Co. has been serving food at Jazz Fest from the very first fest, and this year it brings its new Italian chicken sausage po-boy to join the ranks of its legendary hot sausage and hybrid crawfish and pork sausage. The link is juicy, not too greasy and strung with herbs, and it comes with Asiago cheese sauce, which has a tangy flavor and the texture of fondue.
Plate lunch…and then some
While one approach to Jazz Fest food is perpetual grazing, snagging and perhaps sharing small snacks throughout the day, other people arrive ready for a solid meal. Some vendors are particularly good with this.
For instance, if you swapped the paper plate for dinnerware, the pecan catfish meuniere (Food Area I) and its accompanying mirliton seafood casserole could fit in just fine at a nice restaurant. Meanwhile, a plate of the sweetly crusted BBQ pork ribs with meaty white beans and pickle-strewn slaw (Heritage Square) looks like something you might get at a church picnic if you were particularly tight with the guy ladling out the portions. The Praline Connection goes ahead and names its combination chicken wing and crowder pea plate (Food Area II) a “dinner,” and that’s apt. The wings, served whole under a crunchy crust, are practically a two-piece chicken plate all on their own.
Classics in the making
I’m not privy to Elton John’s set list, but it seems inconceivable that he’d leave the stage without playing “Candle in the Wind,” the ballad that will surely have the Acura stage crowds singing and swaying.
It’s just as inconceivable for me to make it through a Jazz Fest without a cochon de lait po-boy (Food Area I) and a cup of pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo (Food Area II) or a soft shell crab po-boy (Food Area II) or crawfish Monica (Food Area II) and crawfish bread (Food Area I). These are essential flavors of Jazz Fest, and lately they’ve been joined by some dishes that feel like classics in the making.
One of those to my taste is the shrimp and duck pasta (Food Area I), now in its third year at Jazz Fest but a perpetual favorite for the way its radiator pasta shapes collect the meaty, garlicky jus.
Comfort food for all ages
The food vendors by the Kid’s Tent have always been a good pick not just for parents with young festivalgoers in tow but also for those looking for an inexpensive snack or something perhaps less indulgent.
Fireman Mike’s Kitchen here serves a new cornbread muffins studded with kernels, topped with shrimp and slathered with melted butter, which felt like a homey side dish and made a handy small snack. A grilled cheese from Joyce’s Lemonade is griddled to order (American or cheddar cheese; white or wheat bread) and is utterly simple but may be more evocative still. Just a flat little golden-crusted square of bread filled with gooey cheese, it feels like something mom would whip up for you if you were having a bad day.
While the music is playing, and if theweather holds up, bad days may seem far off at the Fair Grounds. But it’s always nice to know there are options.
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