Jazz Fest

The ultimate pop-up.

Every spring in New Orleans, a mega food operation magically pops up in a field where horses usually run. From the time racing ends at the Fair Grounds Race Course, Michelle Nugent, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival food director, has about one month to build out a village of restaurants. The size and scope of the annual project is staggering.

Let’s start by looking at the numbers.

During the seven days of the festival, 60 vendors serve carefully crafted dishes from 70 different locations. Each food booth has running water and uses propane for cooking fuel. Over 165 tanks of propane are consumed daily.

One week before showtime, six 53-foot refrigerated semi trailers are moved onsite. Once they are temperature calibrated, the vendors begin to load in the food. The trucks are monitored 24 hours a day with Nugent on call to make sure everything is maintained at safe food-handling temperatures.

When the 400,000 hungry guests arrive, they’ll consume several million portions of carefully curated, distinctly local food. Many will wash it down with festival favorites, rose-mint and mandarin iced tea. Twenty-two thousand gallons of spring water for brewing are trucked on site to meet the demands of thirsty fair-goers. Six thousand pounds of pork butt are smoked for cochon de lait and over 50,000 pounds of crawfish are boiled.

On a hot day at the festival, a classic New Orleans snow-ball is a must. A.J. Duvio Jr. designed a special mobile snow-ball stand that utilizes almost 5,000 12 1/2-pound blocks of ice that are shaved into fluffy snow on eight machines. To keep the line moving, custom-made syrups are dispensed from automatic soda guns usually seen in high-volume bars. (That’s 6,000 pounds of sugar cooked into 1,500 gallons of flavored syrups being pumped through the lines!)

Numbers aside, the dedicated Jazz Fest vendors and their offerings are the stuff of legend. Fully one-third of the vendors have other careers and only strut out their culinary chops during the festival. Back in the ’70s, much of the food offered came from churches and other community groups. It’s gospel truth that proceeds from Mrs. Mercedes Sykes’ Jazz Fest fried chicken booth literally built the Second Mt. Triumph Missionary Baptist Church.

Big businesses have also been born at the festival. Vance Vaucresson, of Vaucresson Sausage, attended the first festival in his mother’s arms. Today, you can still find Vance serving hot sausage poor-boys in his festival booth, but during the rest of the year he’s the third generation to run the sausage business.

In the 1980s, Pete Hilzam was concentrating on a fresh pasta business, playing around with various sauces to showcase his wares. Although Crawfish Monica (named for his wife) was not on his original Jazz Fest menu in 1983, it soon became a runaway bestseller, spawning a huge local food service operation with a devoted national following.

It’s very rare for an opening in the Jazz Fest food lineup to appear. This year, regular fest-goers will undoubtedly bemoan the loss of two longtime favorites. Sharon and Guilherme Wegner won’t be serving Guil’s Gator, their fried concoction of tender alligator bites served with fried onions and jalapenos. Original fest vendor Angelo Brocato won’t be there either. After 48 years, the Brocatos have decided to stay home at their North Carrollton store, serving their legendary lemon and strawberry ices and cannoli there.

Nugent has some good food news for fest-goers too. Last year’s cultural exchange food vendor, Cubano Congresso, will be filling Guil’s Gator’s spot with ropa vieja and a newly created café con leche paleta. Loretta’s Pralines will have a special spot in the cultural exchange pavilion commemorating the New Orleans tricentennial with pralines and, for the first time, the traditional fried rice cake called calas.

See you at the festival! Don’t forget to come hungry!

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
Catch Poppy on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Wednesdays at 1 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.