My friend Mike Kelly follows a Jazz Fest agenda so predictable as to be considered ritual. Upon arrival at the Fair Grounds, he marches directly to the booth run by Galley Seafood, the Metairie restaurant that supplies thousands of soft-shell crab po-boys to the festival crowd annually. Each year, Kelly takes care of two of them, both of which he purchases at once, dresses roughly with hot sauce and too much mayonnaise and then tamps down his gullet " one after the other, in the manner of box cars entering a tunnel " while standing in the sun at some awkward juncture of festival grounds traffic. It is not a pretty sight, this bout of casual gluttony, but at least it is quick. In a matter of minutes, he has rid himself of the day's lunch money, enjoyed a huge dose of Louisiana cooking and laid the foundation upon which an afternoon's worth of overpriced Miller Lite can soak. Far, far on the other end of the spectrum, my neighbor Keith Hurtt pretty much swears by the food offerings sequestered away by the Kids' Tent. So macaroni and cheese from a local operation called Miss Linda's Catering and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches brought in by Creole's Lunch House in Lafayette keep him in good stead.
Unorthodox as such disparate approaches to Jazz Fest food may be, I've always admired and somewhat envied these friends and their tactics. That's because my own experience usually involves frantically trying to schedule visits to my perennial favorite food booths, scattered all across the Fair Grounds' acres, while ostensibly keeping up with friends and squeezing in a few full sets of music as well.
The way some people have to choose between watching either the Radiators or the Neville Brothers close out the final set of Jazz Fest, that's the vexation I contend with every single day of Jazz Fest when there is one more five dollar bill in my pocket and dozens of food booths spread between me and the exit gates.
My go-to items have consistently been the pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo from Prejeans in Lafayette, fried fish Ferdinand, Cajun chicken and tasso with rice, the Natchitoches meat pies, the cochon de lait po-boy, the crawfish beignets, and the sausage and jalapeno bread, a more reliable offering from the same booth that produces the acclaimed but occasionally fishy crawfish bread.
It always seemed to present uncomfortable questions: Would I be able to eat all my old favorites? Would my wallet hold out? Would there be enough time? Such conundrums can drive a man to distraction.
So for Jazz Fest 2007, I decided to take a different approach. I would only eat dishes I had never sampled at the festival, and I would eat as many of them as I could possibly manage.
Foregoing the old favorites immediately produced good results. Instead of queuing up at the crawfish/sausage bread stand, I rolled the dice on Creole's Stuffed Breads, provided by the same Lafayette café that makes up PB&Js at the Kids' Tent. Its marquee offering is a dark, crusty bulb of bread encasing a spicy mix of ground beef and red pepper. The essential finishing touch is a liberal squirt of the thick, chunky pepper relish kept in squeeze bottles by the service counter. Similarly, giving up Natchitoches meat pies found me sampling the Caribbean patty, a close cousin to be sure, but spicier, more hearty with chunks of potato in the curried chicken mixture and altogether more filling with its flaky, biscuitlike dough.
Last year's tactic led me to offerings I had previously considered too ordinary to sample in light of all the other Jazz Fest-specific choices. Red beans and rice, for instance, may be high on the hit lists for some out-of-towners who have read about the dish more than eaten it, but it never tempted me away from, say, a second cochon de lait po-boy. Still, there I was plunking down my dollars for the smallest portion of red beans I've ever been served. A few bites affirmed the fundamental comforting goodness of the dish but also confirmed just how much more I enjoy finding it offered for free in chafing dishes at any number of local bars on Monday nights.
I had my best luck, though, when delving into the alligator offerings. Usually seen around these parts in fried form as a quasi-exotic appetizer at restaurants catering to tourists, the toothy, latter-day dinosaur got much better treatment at the Fair Grounds wrapped up as a flaky alligator pie with creamy, peppery sauce. It also was stewed with mushrooms, tomatoes, green peppers and tons of black pepper for alligator sauce piqaunte. Even the fried alligator, in a po-boy or on a plate from the same vendor, was better than any example you'll find at a restaurant where servers are required to wear flair. Chewy but with tempuralike batter, the chunks were mixed with fried onions and perfectly fried jalapenos that were mellowed from cooking but still sharp.
After sampling many more of the savory, the sweet and the unknown in 2007, this year I'll be approaching Jazz Fest with a new game plan. I'll be paying belated visits to some old friends, adding a few new ones to the roster and, if the crowds seem too dense, maybe even trying out the macaroni and cheese over by the Kids' Tent.