Seven days, 12 stages and tents, hundreds of musical acts, countless applications of sunscreen, and one can only guess how many lukewarm beers. To borrow a cliché, Jazz Fest is a marathon not a sprint, and just as those runners must refuel along their 26.2-mile journey, so too must you nourish your body over the many hours of sun-soaked, sweaty and serendipitous pleasure spent at the Fair Grounds.
The key to feasting your way through Jazz Fest is planning, pace, and patience. Enter the infield without some form of culinary agenda, fall head over heels for one dish so that you decide to go back for seconds, or avoid the longer lines in favor of immediate gratification, and chances are that you will miss out on some of the best eats on the grounds. But with a quick survey of the map, a few mental notations of your perennial favorites, and a willingness to navigate unknown gustatory territory, the fest can be as pleasurable for your taste buds as it is for your ears.
Consider navigating your way through the Jazz Fest vendors as if you were dining in a multi-course affair. A proper first course is minimal yet builds anticipation, a nibble to whet the appetite without taking up precious real estate in the stomach. If entering through the Sauvage Street entrance, stop in Heritage Square for an order of spring rolls from Ba Mien. The crisp vegetables and cool vermicelli noodles wrapped inside taut rice paper are a refreshing way to begin your journey. For those in search of a salty snack on the go, head over to Food Area II for a paper bag full of cracklins from Fatty’s. These hot, crunchy puffs of pork skin make a perfect amuse bouche to share among friends. Like much of the food at Jazz Fest, they’ll also freak out your friends from more civilized parts of the country, and the pleasure in that can’t be overrated.
Gumbo may fall into the soup category by default, but locals will tell you that a proper serving of the potage is a meal unto itself. There are as many versions of gumbo as there are cooks in South Louisiana, and three distinct varieties can be found on the festival grounds. Fireman Mike Gowland parlayed his Jazz Fest notoriety into a Food TV appearance a few years ago, but his celebrity has not detracted from his commitment to the Fest, where he will be offering shrimp gumbo thickened with okra. Filé gumbo takes its name from the ground sassafras added to the pot for both flavor and texture, and the Bacquet family serves up their Creole family recipe from their Lil Dizzy’s booth in Heritage Square. But the apotheosis of gumbo comes from Prejean’s, whose brick-red pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo is rustic from its Acadiana roots yet refined enough to warrant praise from all who have had that rich, deep base pass across their lips.
Moving onto the main course, the first decision to be made is whether utensils will be necessary. Standing up while holding a beer and ferrying forkfuls of jambalaya to your mouth is an art form that professionals and determined amateurs will be rewarded for mastering as it will be required to enjoy combination trios like the jama-jama, fried plantains and poulet fricassee from Bennachin; and the crawfish sack, oyster patties and crawfish beignets from Patton’s Caterers. You could spend those skills eating Crawfish Monica and crawfish enchiladas, or you could try them out on the lamb tagine from Jamila’s (hint, hint).
The portability of sandwiches make them the quintessential festival food, but at the Fair Grounds, it’s the substance not the functionality that explains the long lines forming in front of the Galley Seafood and Love at First Bite booths.
After a wait that at times may seem like an eternity, patient fans giddily walk away from the front of the lines with po-boys filled with crunchy fried soft-shell crab or succulent cochon de lait.
While technically not classified as sandwiches, the freshly baked breads stuffed with a myriad of meats, cheeses and seafood from Panorama Foods and Creole’s Lunch House include both the handheld and gut-filling characteristics that make them almost as popular as the classic po-boys. And although their ethnic origins lie outside southern Louisiana, the gyro from Mona’s and Cuban sandwich from Canseco’s are reason enough to recognize that the cultures of the region draw influence from all over the globe.
If you have made it to the end of a full day of music and your progressive outdoor feast, the least that you can do to reward yourself is to indulge in dessert. Perhaps a snoball from one of the three vendors serving these frozen cloud-like treats from strategically placed locations around the grounds. For those in search of a more filling finale, look no further than the Creole cream cheese cake with strawberries from Minnie Pearl (find a friend to split it with) or the sweet potato treats from Marie Sugar Dumplings.
But always remember to finish with a mango freeze and plenty of rosemint iced tea and strawberry lemonade, as you will need to rehydrate. This is a marathon, after all.