The food at the New Orleans Jazz Fest doesn’t change much from year to year, and there’s a good reason why. People have made certain dishes part of their Jazz Fest tradition, and they expect and anticipate their favorites on each visit. 

But another defining aspect of Jazz Fest is the way people make the event their own, bringing their own style and rituals to the experience.

In that spirit, I spent the first Jazz Fest weekend revisiting some greats from the Jazz Fest food booths and also experimenting with the potential of dishes from different vendors joining forces on the plate.

For the first batch, I started simple by adding one game-changing ingredient: cracklin’.

Just add cracklin’

The cochon de lait po-boy one of the top dishes at Jazz Fest, and it’s a personal favorite. Could cracklin’ make pork perfection better? The more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to try it, and the precedent is certainly there. Chef Frank Brigtsen tops his definitive cochon de lait at his Brigtsen’s Restaurant with cracklin’, and that dish is platonic.

The po-boy version, I’m here to say, is obscenely good. The cracklin’ comes from Fatty’s over at Food Area II; the cochon de lait is from Love at First Bite at Food Area I (just look for the longest line). Together, the cracklin’ adds an intense, audible crunch to the creamy crunch of the po-boy’s slaw, and brings a dense meaty savor to the tender strands of cochon de lait.

In theory, the cracklin’ can garnish just about any dish out here. But for further exploration, I chose another dish that shares its roots at the traditional Cajun boucherie, which led to the tasso and chicken with Creole rice from TJ Gourmet, located right around the corner from Fatty’s cracklin’ stand in Food Area II.

Tasso, the smoky, strongly-seasoned Cajun ham, is ordinarily the star of this dish, soaking in a peppery, ruddy-red rustic sauce. Add cracklin’ over the top and it quickly softens in the sauce, adding a crust of salty savor that seems to belong there all along.

Boudin grilled cheese

Like cracklin’, the boudin ball is another Cajun country snack that stirs strong cravings. At Jazz Fest, the examples served at Food Area I by Papa Ninety are spicy and moist and well seasoned under crunchy outer shells. They’re perfect on their own, but for something different I brought them over to the Kids Area, where the Joyce’s Lemonade stand serves a good old-fashioned grilled cheese sandwich.

It’s a helpful kid’s meal or an innocent, homey snack. Until you add boudin balls. Peel back the white bread, mash a boudin ball down into the gooey yellow American cheese, press it back together and you have an Acadiana-Americana original.

Spicing up crawfish Monica

Next up is one of the most famous Jazz Fest dishes, crawfish Monica, and another of my personal favorites, Guil’s gator.

The first is well known - rotini pasta and crawfish gleaming under a creamy sauce. The second dish is a boat of fried alligator chunks, topped with fried onion strings and, the key ingredient: fried jalapeño rings.

To give your crawfish Monica an extra kick, walk your pasta over from Food Area II to the Guil’s gator booth at Food Area I and top the rotini with those pepper rings. More than just heat, they add a fried crunch and an earthy funk of fried jalapeño. It becomes an old favorite with a new edge.

What to do with the Guil’s gator you’ve now deconstructed? Easy, just eat it. It’s still plenty flavorful. Or, you can double down with another ad hoc combination. Add the fried gator chunks to the alligator sauce piquante from Fireman Mike’s Kitchen at Food Area I. The sauce piquante is an exceptional dish on its own. Add the crisp fried gator to the tender stewed gator it already has and you’ve multiplied the texture and flavor. Just eat this one promptly, before the fried gator gets soggy in the sauce.

Keeping Cool with a Kick

A big, tropical-yellow scoop of mango freeze is one of the classic tastes of Jazz Fest, and it can be a true boost on a sweltering day at the Fair Grounds.

It even has two booths, one in Food Area I and over by the Louisiana Folklife Village. Can it be a coincidence that both are located near stands for sparkling wine?

This stuff is sold by the can. Pour it slowly over the mango freeze, but not all at once (it will overflow). Make a bubbly moat around the scoop and start mashing it up a bit. Mash it up a bit and slurp it off your spoon, adding wine as you make room. Pretty soon you have a mango freeze mimosa to keep you cool with a kick.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.