by Ian McNulty
Fun events have a way of snowballing in New Orleans, where the ingrained local penchant for participatory partying helps many of them grow year to year. Still, there was little precedent for how quickly Hogs for the Cause skyrocketed from a charitable cook-off among friends back in 2009 to the de facto kick-off to the spring festival season today.
The cause in the event’s name is support for families contending with pediatric brain cancer, which is an important one to rally around. But the Hogs for the Cause organizers also tapped into the potent draw of outdoor pig cookery, the stuff of epic tailgates, regional pride and a little gonzo gastronomic gusto as teams of friends and some of the area’s leading chefs try to outdo each other.
The result is now one of the great eating events in New Orleans, which this year will be held on March 23 in City Park’s new Festival Grounds. Close to 80 teams will be spread across its acres at small encampments where many will have spent the previous night cooking pigs (and carrying on). Throughout the day they serve their contest entries to judges and sell their creations to festival goers, while high-caliber bands perform on two stages and drinks flow, including NOLA Brewing beers and a special “hogtail” drink devised by Neal Bodenheimer of the cocktail lounge Cure.
Last year’s event drew some 12,000 people, and this year organizers expect more.
“The bigger it gets, the more money we can generate and the more we can give,” says Rene Louapre, the New Orleans attorney (and avid food blogger at BlackenedOut.com) who founded Hogs for the Cause with his friend Becker Hall.
One major addition to the program this year is the Southern Asado Dinner. For this local rendition of a traditional Argentine barbecue, a group of pork-minded Southern restaurant chefs known together as the Fatback Collective will prepare a family-style meal outdoors at the Festival Grounds on March 22, the night before the big cook-off, beginning at 6:30 p.m. The Link Restaurant Group, of Herbsaint, Cochon and Butcher fame, is coordinating the dinner, which is like the laidback equivalent of a benefit gala, with music, a silent auction and wine and drinks included in the $300 ticket.
The competition at the main event on March 23 pits accomplished restaurant chefs from around the region against each other and against backyard barbecue fanatics, with obvious porcine payoffs for attendees who arrive hungry and ready to sample. Portions are usually sample-sized, and just what you’ll eat next is a mystery that unfolds around the grounds.
“The teams are highly secretive, a lot of them won’t even tell me what they’re planning,” says Louapre. “But once you’re out there, it’s amazing how fast word spreads about what someone’s serving. My advice is to come in, grab a map and start talking with people on the grounds about what they’ve had.”
You can also get an informal preview of what’s to come at the Friday Night Tailgate Experience, another new addition to the Hogs for the Cause schedule on March 22. From 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., $5 admission gets you access to the grounds as teams set up for their night of cooking. You can mingle with the pitmasters and teams, while drinks, including more “hogtails,” will be for sale.
Saturday’s main event begins at 11 a.m. Tickets are $15 in advance ($20 at the gate), and there’s a “boss hog” ticket for $250 ($300 at gate), which includes food and drink and other perks. Children 12 and under are admitted free.
Find details and ticket info here.