This year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival highlights Native American culture, with music, crafts and food from different tribes. That includes an expanded presence from the United Houma Nation, which for nearly 20 years has served traditional foods like fry bread and maque choux at Jazz Fest. The tribe will operate two booths this year, and members will demonstrate the preparation of other dishes at the Cajun Cabin and Food Heritage stages (visit www.nojazzfest.com for details). Lora Ann Chaisson is a longtime leader for her tribe, and her cooking has been featured on the Travel Channel and PBS.
Jazz Fest visitors may be familiar with your fry bread. What's behind that tradition?
Chaisson: Every tribe has its own fry bread, all over the country. They have different versions, but wherever you go there's fry bread. We eat ours all day. We have it for breakfast with cane syrup. You have it for lunch with your beans. At Easter, there's a big stack of fry bread on the table.
What does it take for the tribe to participate in Jazz Fest each year?
C: It's a challenge. We're not a restaurant or a caterer; this is all volunteer. So we organize people into shifts and we drive everyone up from Houma and the bayous every day, starting at 6:30 in the morning with vans and cars picking people up. But I'm very proud to be there. The exposure for the tribe is invaluable, and it's amazing how many other native people come to Jazz Fest and seek us out at the booth.
Where does traditional Houma cooking fit with overall Louisiana cuisine?
C: Honestly, I think other groups mostly took parts of ours to add to theirs. We grew up with gumbo, but I had never heard of a gumbo with roux. Our gumbo is based on onions. It wasn't "First you make a roux," it was always "First you brown your onions." We use sassafras to thicken it. But like everyone else in Louisiana, food is a big part of our culture. When you hear someone is getting married, the first question isn't "What's the wedding date?". It's "Who's doing the cooking?". That's the truth. It's like that for baby showers, everything. — IAN MCNULTY