Meat Me At the Fest: A returning native eats all and lives to tell the tale
By Scott Gold
When my yankee friends tell me that they're headed down to the Crescent City for Jazz Fest, they invariably pepper me with questions about bars and restaurants, and pick my brain for places to go for a good time when they're out and about. I love that they do this -- it always makes me feel like something of an authority, which, when it comes to food and fun, every New Orleanian is. But it often gives me pause.
"But what about the festival?" I usually reply, employing the old rabbinical method of responding to a question with another question.
"What about it?" they say.
"Have you thought at all about what you're going to eat?"
"Well...I haven't really considered it," is a typical answer, or, worse still, "I just thought I'd pick up something or whatever while I'm there."
And then they see me sigh heavily and drop my face into my palms, shaking my head in frustration.
Okay, so maybe I'm being overly dramatic, but the truth is that there is simply so much food at Jazz Fest, unless you've planned to be eating constantly for the entire seven days that event takes place (and if you are, good on ya!), you need to strategize your culinary plans. Every yat and who dat worth his Tony Chachere's knows that the music and crafts are only a fraction of the experience; if you're not hitting the food areas hard, then you're cheating yourself in a terrible way, and truly missing out on what Jazz Fest really means. Even if you've girded your gullet in anticipation of the literally hundreds of dishes available, chances are you're still going to have to strategize. Pick your favorites -- or newcomers that look promising -- and branch off from there.
Unless, of course, you happen to be with The Times-Picayune staff as they work their annual way through the entire festival menu in the span of about four hours on the first day, which was my lot this year. (For the results of that mission, click here.)
Yes, I know: Some people have it terrifically rough.
Slowly, methodically, and with great discretion (and the lubricating aid of cold beer), we took on this gauntlet to find the best bets at the fest. And so, at the end of the day, my belly as overstuffed as a shrimp po-boy, I sat down to record my thoughts and meditations about the day and its bounty.
First, it's difficult not to marvel at the sheer breadth and variety of the menu itself. With dozens of dishes to sample, trying to do so in only a few short hours is something akin to gastronomic heroism. The uninitiated into Tribe Jazz Fest might imagine that the culinary offerings would stick mostly to New Orleans, Creole and Cajun favorites, and if that's what you're looking for, you're surely not going to be disappointed. Choose from crawfish Monica to cochon de lait, oyster Rockefeller bisque, crawfish bread, jambalaya, myriad gumbos, alligator pie and pecan catfish meuniere, to greasy bags of pork cracklins, crispy fried boudin balls, and po-boys in varieties spanning the po-boy rainbow, including duck, roast beef, turkey, and, of course, fried soft-shell crab.
The last of these -- soft-shell crab -- has always held a particular fascination for me, as it's the only dish I can think of that features a single, whole animal as the meat. It is literally a fried animal, dressed, on bread. Perhaps this says something about my character, but damn if I don't just love that.
But that's just a slice of the (Nachitoches meat) pie, even when it comes to the local choices. One of the most amazing aspects of the Jazz Fest food selection is how worldly it is. Sure, there are muffalettas and gumbos and hot sausage, but there's also Japanese chicken donburi, Cuban sandwiches, Jamaican chicken and curry pies, Vietnamese shrimp and pork over cold rice noodles, Greek gyros, falafel, hummus and tabouli, jama jama with poulet fricasee, Gambian dibi, and Moroccan-style tagine of lamb and merguez sausage.
I don't imagine newbies realize the wondrous variety of world cuisine available at a south Louisiana music festival, but it's certainly a testament to the people of New Orleans and our collective heritage. It is a "heritage" festival after all, isn't it? NOLA ain't just red beans on Monday. It is, and always has been, a city of the world, and the global influence on the Jazz Fest food menu is clearly representative of that.
Finally, as a card-carrying carnivore, I can't help but note that the food fare at the fest is overwhelmingly meat-centric, god bless it. Sure, there are a few vegetarian options -- I was forced to ponder the sense of a veggie muffaletta ("Just cheese and olive salad on bread? Who want's that?") -- but I'm hard pressed not to feel that eschewing the pleasures of the flesh will shortchange a person of a true Jazz Fest experience. Where else are you going to be at an outdoor music festival and see the words "quail, pheasant and andouille" painted on a wooden food stall? How does anyone pass that up?
Not that I'm judging, of course. If you want to eat mango freezes all day, that's your right and I'm happy to leave you to it.
That'll leave plenty of alligator for me.
A New Orleans native and current Brooklynite, Scott Gold is the author of the book The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto for Meat Lovers, a selection of which appeared in Best Food Writing 2008. He has been interviewed and featured as an advocate and (relative) expert on all things meaty and delicious -- as well as American spirits -- in a number of media, including Saveur, Serious Eats, The New York Post, the New York Daily News, The New York Press, The New York Observer, AOL Food, Fine Cooking, and Canadian Meat Business magazine, among others. Gold has been a panelist at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, and has written for numerous publications, including the New Orleans Times Picayune, Asylum.com, Gourmet.com, TableMatters.com, Overflow magazine, The Faster Times (where he is a columnist), and Edible Brooklyn. He is also the creator/editor of shamelesscarnivore.com, and, contrary to popular opinion, he enjoys many vegetables.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]