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Food in Flux 

Jazz Fest promises "right of return" for some vendors, while others bring new items to the Fair Grounds.

Though some vendors who traditionally sell food at the Jazz Fest will be absent, there will be 58 food purveyors and more than 120 culinary items available. If the line at your favorite Jazz Fest food booth ever seems long, just think about the line the vendors themselves must negotiate for the chance to sell their sweets and savories at the Fair Grounds. Spaces for vendors are limited, and someone usually has to relinquish a spot for another to get a shot at it. Because Jazz Fest can be so profitable for vendors, that kind of turnover is very rare.

This year being a year like no other, however, 10 veteran vendors will not be at Jazz Fest this year. But also because this is a year like no other, the Jazz Fest organization took no steps to replace them. Instead, organizers are holding spots for vendors whose businesses were too badly damaged during and after Katrina to participate this year, essentially promising a right of return for the 2007 festival.

"We just had to be flexible this year, though everyone understands this is a one-year-only deal," says Jazz Fest food director Michelle Nugent.

So the offerings will be a little slimmer at the Fair Grounds this year, but that's only in comparison to the near embarrassment of edible riches the cornucopia had grown to be in years past. There are still more than 120 food items served under the sun at Jazz Fest this year and 58 different booths scattered around the festival grounds, not counting the beer tents.

Each of the food items is there because it passed the muster of the Jazz Fest review process, which is not easy. In addition to how the food tastes, Jazz Fest regulates the types of dishes vendors are allowed to sell and prohibits typical "carnival food." That's why fest-goers can get crawfish sausage instead of hot dogs, fried oyster po-boys instead of hamburgers and Cajun chicken and tasso over Creole rice instead of nachos.

One Louisiana dish new to Jazz Fest this year is not only unusual for a festival setting, but also a rare item to find anywhere. Vickie Krantz, whose family ran the Fair Grounds Race Course before it was bought by Churchill Downs Inc., is preparing a different take on calas in Food Area I. These fried rice cakes were once as common as beignets in New Orleans but are now found at only a handful of restaurants. Though calas traditionally are covered in powdered sugar or syrup and eaten for breakfast, Krantz has a savory version with andouille sausage and a green onion sauce. Proceeds from calas sales will benefit the Fair Grounds Racing Museum, which the Krantz family runs in Kenner.

There has been some shuffling of vendor locations this year, too, with the food areas that previously were close to the grandstand and the Congo Square stage now incorporated into main Food Areas I and II.

"People shouldn't panic if they don't see one of their favorites in the usual place; they might just be somewhere else (on the festival grounds) this year," says Nugent.

Fried chicken is a case in point. This Jazz Fest favorite has long been the territory of Wayne Baquet, but this year Baquet is concentrating on his recently reopened Treme restaurant Lil' Dizzy's and won't be at the festival. Instead, Catering Unlimited is hoisting the fried chicken mantle at Food Area I, where it also is serving its Cajun jambalaya.

While most of the vendors at the festival this year are familiar faces, they are bringing plenty of new dishes with them.

Papa Ninety Catering is adding seafood tamales to its boudin and crawfish remoulade offerings at Food Area I. Shrimp bread is the latest from Panaroma Foods, the Marksville baker that makes the wildly popular crawfish bread and equally good sausage and jalapeno bread at Food Area I. Ledet & Louque will once again serve baskets of boiled crawfish, but has a new addition to the offerings this year with its crawfish etouffee at Food Area I.

The popular stuffed artichokes prepared by Vucinovich's Restaurant proved too labor intensive this year, so they are replaced at the Food Area I booth by paneed chicken po-boys. The booth run by the Mensaje Spanish Festival is bringing back its tajadas -- the fried plantains topped with fried pork and pickled cabbage that proved such a hit when introduced last year -- but wasn't able to make its pupusas due to supply difficulties. Instead, look for new chicken flautas at its Food Area II booth.

Fireman Mike's Kitchen is back again at Food Area II after a hiatus last year, and is cooking up a rendition of alligator sauce piquante -- a dish that in past years has been alive with spice and flavor. Also in the reptile business this year is Margaritaville Cafe, the French Quarter eatery owned by Jimmy Buffet that is frying bits of alligator meat along with frog legs at Food Area I.

On the sweet spectrum, Minnie Pearl, the Marrero-based baker known around the Fair Grounds as the "Pie Lady," this year is adding the Southern favorite red velvet cake to her array of desserts at the small Heritage Square food area.

And back this year at Food Area I is Linda Green, adding banana bread pudding to her offerings of yaka mein -- a dish that might be even harder to find these days than calas. Yaka mein is an only-in-New-Orleans soup made from any combination of meat, egg, greens and noodles in a spicy, salty broth that carries the endearing nickname "old sober" for its purported qualities as a hangover cure. It is most often found at corner groceries in low-income neighbors, very few of which are back in business since the storm. But it's back at Jazz Fest, as the edible history of New Orleans writes its next chapter.

click to enlarge Cheryl Gerber - CHERYL GERBER
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