What to Eat at New Orleans' Jazz Fest

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Crawfish Monica, just one of the must-try foods at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest.

This weekend is the second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The music ranges from the sublime (the gospel tent) to the ridiculous (Billy Joel on the Acura stage), but there is also food. In their wisdom, rather than providing the standard concessionaire fare, the guiding spirits of Jazz Fest have a competitive, juried process for getting food selling space inside the Fairgrounds. The entire thing takes place inside of a horse race track, which should give some sense of the scale. I had suggested an overview of these offering might be interesting for SE readers, and arrived at the fairgrounds with a roll of Tums and a fistful of cash, prepared to survey the entire range of offerings. A sacrifice, yes, but worth it for the sake of edifying SE readers. Unfortunately, not long after my arrival on Saturday, the skies opened up, which limited, but did not derail, my plan.

First and foremost, and a useful bit of wisdom from a grizzled Jazz Fest veteran, try to keep a Rose Mint Iced tea in your hands at all times. Wandering around outdoors all day is dehydrating, (when it's not raining, especially), and as you are likely to have many opportunities to drink alcohol, before, during, and after your time at the fairgrounds, a refreshing, hydrating drink is a good thing now and again.

An early stop was for the pheasant, duck and andouille gumbo from Prejean's, from Lafayette. More than some gumbos, this was something other than its constituents would be separately, and this one was very satisfying, with a nice dark roux tying it all together.

Then, the deluge. The bag of peanuts I snagged from a passing vendor disintegrated in my hands. Suddenly reaching the amount of time I was willing to spend standing in the rain watching a dry Dr. John play the piano, I fled in search of food and shelter, not necessarily in that order. There was no shelter to be had, with phalanxes of festgoers packed into every available tent like battery hens, but fortunately, the lines at the food concessions were shorter (though not nonexistent— especially for the soft shell crab po'boy from the Wegners of Metairie*).

Finding something close and portable was the main goal, which led to one of the sleeper hits of Jazzfest—the Cubano, from Canseco's Esplanade market, from right in the neighborhood. It had all of the requisite Cubano ingredients, and no perversions, but what set it apart from inferior versions like those, it pains me to say, I encountered on the Calle Ocho in Miami, was the attention paid to the roast pork. Rather than the literal cold shoulder, this was more like warm rilletes. Our gracious hosts live within a stone's throw of the year-round location of Canseco's and it amazes me they are still able to walk unaided.

I appropriated a small gazebo for shelter, like one of those pedestals for traffic cops one sees in Bermuda, but wanted to get that Cubano feeling back after about 45 minutes. The closest interesting option was the crawfish strudel from the Coffee Cottage in River Ridge. It was a bit of a letdown, but even the most compelling phyllo-based dish suffers when you eat it standing up in the rain.

The rain, and being able to stay for only one day, meant missing on any number of staples. The crawfish bags, which are sort of like fried Vietnamese spring rolls I've had in years past, and they are delicious. People I trust swear by the restorative powers of crawfish beignets after a long evening the night before. A young friend who grew up in the shadow of the Fairgrounds dotes on the crawfish Monica. And looking at the list, there are dozens of other things I wish I could have tried.

For the out-of towner, Jazz Fest is a bit of a mixed blessing, foodwise. It is a chance to try a wide range offerings from around the state, but lines can be long, and they do not give the stuff away. (Six bucks or so for a smallish serving is standard; some vendors are rumored to live for the year off their Jazz Fest take.) Also, the influx means that it is a hard time to get a meal in a restaurant without long waits. If you do go to Jazz Fest, promise yourself to go back during a quieter time.

The Jazz Fest folks do offer this useful overview. If this list does not make you tab over to Orbitz and start pricing flights to New Orleans (MSY is the code), I have no idea why you look at food websites.

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The Five Must-Have Foods at Jazz Fest