Jazz Fest Eats

At this annual extravaganza in New Orleans, both fans and musicians have strong opinions on the food.
new orleans jazz fest


he connection between jazz and food in New Orleans goes way back. In 1927, Louis Armstrong recorded “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue;” the Louisiana classic “The Jambalaya Song” was released in 1952 by Hank Williams, Sr. The lyrics of the chorus read like a menu—jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo.

Practically any day of the year in this city, you can walk into a restaurant and hear a jazz band playing or go to a music venue and have an incredible meal. During the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, dubbed Jazz Fest, the magical bond grows to a crescendo as hundreds of thousands of people descend upon the Fair Grounds Race Course for two weekends of music and food.

Each weekend’s schedule is chockablock with music and food options, and there’s only so much time in a day and room in a stomach. Musical acts perform on stages around the inner perimeter of the racetrack, while the interior is filled with food booths run by small restaurants and mom-and-pop places from around the state. Fest-goers plot their routes from stage to stage, noting where they’re going to stop to eat along the way. And so do the musicians—many choosing foods that seem to reflect the roots of their musical styles.

Trumpet player Kermit Ruffins lives for the food as much as he does the music. “I cook 12 pounds of red beans and rice every Monday and give it away at my shows,” he says. But at Jazz Fest, he digs into the Cajun jambalaya—darker and richer than the more common tomato-based versions, but still with their trademark spiciness and a good bit of andouille. Originally developed as a way to get rid of the week’s leftovers, the rice-based dish is all about improvisation, exploring what can come out of a basic recipe—much like Ruffins’s approach to music, throwing riffs from popular songs into his trumpet solos.

Meanwhile, the reigning Queen of New Orleans Soul, Irma Thomas, heads for the queen of Jazz Fest food—Crawfish Monica©. (Yep, the company that brought the dish to the festival, Kajun Kettle Foods, actually copyrighted the name.) This tangle of rotini comes drowned in a cheesy sauce filled with plump little crawfish. While Thomas’s tribute to legend Mahalia Jackson in the Gospel Tent gets nothing but raves, the Monica seems to be one of the most disputed topics at Jazz Fest. People fall into two camps: Those who love it and will wither in the heat waiting in line for it, and those who think you’d have to be crazy to line up for this overly rich pasta. But that doesn’t stop Thomas. “I even bring my own bowl,” she explains. “It’s perfect for filling you up after you’ve worked up an appetite dancing.”

Among the dancing throngs, people wave flags overhead so that their friends can find them easily. In the middle of a set, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy looked into the crowd and asked a man if that was a pork chop on his flag. “I’m on team pork chops!” Tweedy cried. It wasn’t a pork chop on the flag, though there is a pork chop sandwich at Jazz Fest. There’s also something even better: a cochon de lait po’ boy, made with slow-roasted suckling pig on French bread. The creator of the sandwich, New Orleans catering company Love at First Bite, goes through three tons of pork each year during Jazz Fest.

But beef is well represented here, too. As Kevin Griffin of Better than Ezra puts it, the festival’s Natchitoches meat pies “are insane. They’re a heart attack, but amazing.” The Louisiana version of an empanada, a Natchitoches meat pie is filled with a combination of chiles, onion, and beef, then deep-fried. It’s served in a wax paper sleeve, which is helpful for keeping the pie intact while you meander from show to show. “Here, life is slow,” says Griffins, who lived in the city until Hurricane Katrina struck. “That’s the backbeat in New Orleans music. It’s a really deep pocket, a laid-back beat. You can hear it in the music and taste it in the food.”

Of course, not all Jazz Fest musicians are quite as chilled out; some are downright zealous, at least when it comes to experiencing all the food the festival has to offer. “The cochon de lait po’ boy is the tits,” declares Ben Ellman, saxophonist and harmonica player for jam-funk band Galactic. (That’s his way of saying it’s good.) “It’s the perfect marriage of smoky and fatty. The cabbage coleslaw is super-crunchy with a little horseradish bite.” A fervent foodie, he runs down all of his favorite Jazz Fest eats—including the flawlessly fried soft-shelled crab po’ boy, the spice-imbued shredded-duck po’ boy, and the fried alligator poppers—and admits that some days he stops by the festival just to grab lunch. His excitement about a wide variety of foods seems to mirror his musical philosophy: Galactic brings a mesmerizing array of influences to the stage in its notorious marathon performances.

Like the band and the festival itself, gumbo and jambalaya—the staple dishes of the region—also bring together a hodgepodge of ingredients with glorious results. There’s plenty of opportunity to sample them, and the regulars are more than happy to help: As a local eloquently explained to a tourist waiting in line for food, “Gumbo is the soupy one. And jambalaya is rice with all the crap thrown in it.”

Consumed at the festival each year: about 50,000 pounds of crawfish; roughly 13,000 pounds of rice; 6 tons of rotini (for Crawfish Monica)

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