A festival’s theme usually is a pretty straightforward matter. That holds true for this weekend’s Creole Tomato Festival, though there is a little more to the story this time around.
For 28 years now, the French Market has hosted this event in conjunction with the seasonal return of local Creole tomatoes. Red usually is everywhere at the festival, from décor at the market to tomato-themed foods to costumes that some people don for the day.
This year, however, there is more in store for the Creole Tomato Festival, and that starts with a broader look at what Creole tomatoes represent.
“What makes a Creole tomato special is that it comes from south Louisiana: it’s local, and it comes from the soil here, that’s the difference,” said Jon Smith, executive director of the French Market Corp., which is hosting this weekend’s event. “This year, we wanted to take that idea and apply it to other things that share this starting point, that are good and that spring from south Louisiana.”
In practice, that means a greatly expanded music schedule with bands steeped in local jazz, blues and funk traditions performing on two stages.
It means more Louisiana foods from market vendors and a broader range of New Orleans-area restaurants having booths for the festival. And it extends to the drinks selection, which, in addition to the occasional Creole tomato cocktail, will prominently feature homegrown Abita Brewing products on tap.
There will be hourly cooking demonstrations from local chefs at the French Market Fare Stage, kids’ activities and performances, and interactive craft booths. Visitors who spend $30 or more in any of the French Market’s retail shops get a complimentary bag of Creole tomatoes.
The French Market’s leadership hopes this will be the recipe for a reinvigorated festival in 2014, which also happens to be the first time in a while that the Creole Tomato Festival has the event spotlight to itself.
The Louisiana Seafood Festival and the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival were once on the same weekend at the adjacent Old U.S. Mint, in such close proximity that, for many visitors, the events all fused into one.
But those other events have since changed venues, with the Seafood Festival now in the fall in City Park and the Cajun-Zydeco Festival moving to Armstrong Park, where it will be held June 14 and 15.
This year’s Creole Tomato Festival also comes as the French Market has been working to draw more locals back to shop and visit the city’s historic public marketplace.
With two days of activities stretching across four blocks, the festival provides a good framework for connecting the different pieces that make up the market. Consider the following self-guided walking tour as a way to take it all in:
Start at the relatively quiet end of the festival, entering at Dumaine Street, and walk the narrow flagstone Dutch Alley, where you’ll find kids activities at the indoor outpost for the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park and the outdoor Dutch Alley Pavilion Stage for live music.
Cross back over North Peters Street at St. Philip Street, by the Joan of Arc statue, and continue along past the craft market and a pair of full-service restaurants and through Latrobe Park, a leafy pocket park marked by a pair of fountains. Walk through the first market arches, decorated for the day as a giant tomato, where produce vendors and the market’s permanent, walk-up food booths line the path leading to the flea market stalls.
Here, the two blocks of French Market Place will be closed to traffic and opened for people to stroll and dance as bands perform on the main Abita Beer Stage down at Barracks Street. Restaurants like RioMar and Bayona will have booths alongside food trucks and other food vendors, all serving dozens of dishes sharing a Creole tomato theme. Sample some food, have a drink, shop for crafts, watch a band and repeat the route as desired. After all, it’s a free festival open to all at a public market.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.