LIZ WILLIAMS is the director and president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Besides her work with SoFAB, she is a lawyer who writes about the legal aspects of food, reflecting culture, policy and economics.
Every year the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival takes place during the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May. It is an opportunity to see wonderful bands which play at various stages throughout the festival site. But in addition to music, there are areas with crafts marketplaces, demonstrations of certain heritage practices, food demonstrations, exhibits, and lots and lots of food.
The food that is sold at Jazz Fest has a reputation for being curated. It is held to a high standard by the festival planners and by the festival goers. So when I was invited to be on a team of tasters to eat our way through Jazz Fest on its first day, I jumped at the chance. We arrived at Jazz Fest, grasping our tickets, ready when the gates opened at 11:00 am. I had prepared for this event by skipping breakfast, so I was hungry when we started.
The food is centered in three basic areas around Jazz Fest. There is Area One, which has many of the familiar Jazz Fest food that people look forward to each year. This includes crawfish bread, a terrific spinach salad with fried oysters, various poboys, plus barbeque, fried alligator, and yaka mein. Area Two has wonderful Vietnamese plates, crawfish streudel, oyster Rockefeller soup, and white chocolate bread pudding. And Congo Square and the heritage foods area includes wonderful Tunisian salad, Greek salad, and delicious foods from various parts of Africa.
This day, although it ended with me feeling so stuffed that I could have been baked or roasted, it was great fun and a wonderful adventure. With all of us buying and sharing the various dishes, we could quickly buy food before the lines became as long as legend. We lined up the food and began to taste. We each had our utensils at hand in shirt pockets or pants pockets. We were ready. Our team included chefs, journalists and organization executives. Our common bond was that we all love food and are willing to be uncomfortable to eat it. No lightweights who have delicate stomachs or can’t take the heat, dirt or lack of sanitation (our hands were NOT clean and we were clearly sharing each other’s germs).
So what do I think? I think that it was very hot and except in a few places there are acres and acres of sunshine with little shelter. For me that means eat fresh. So hot bowls of gumbo, fried soft shell crab poboys, and jambalaya, however delicious they are, are just too heavy and when served properly, i.e., hot, and are just not refreshing in the heat. My favorite foods were the raw foods. That means Vietnamese spring rolls redolent of fresh mint. The Greek salad was tasty and beautiful. The Tunisian dish with tabouleh with plenty of fresh parsley was a winner. The Chinese salad was crunchy and cool.
I still love all of the traditional New Orleans dishes. I am certainly ready to eat hot gumbo in the heat. I welcome a fried alligator poboy. But I have learned that I want to balance that with fresh. So all of you food vendors at Jazz Fest, make sure that you dress poboys with lots of fresh ingredients, add fresh parsley and green onions to the gumbo and all those combo plates need something raw. Have fun and good eating.