For the music-obsessed, keeping up with who is playing when and where at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival can be a high-stakes proposition. I know some particularly organized fans who produce spreadsheets to chart out their days of shuttling between stages.
For the food fanatic, things at Jazz Fest are a little different but no less intense. These are the people who, when asked what they enjoyed at the fest on a particular day, will go on about crawfish Monica, catfish amandine, alligator pie and mango freeze before getting around to a performer like Tom Petty or Cee Lo Green. For this type of festivalgoer — and let's just admit there are a lot of us out there — it pays to get organized too. Clock management is just as important for us as it is for the music-obsessed — you don't want to face a "sold out" sign because you waited too long to get the cochon de lait po-boy (Food Area I) from Love at First Bite (aka Walker's Southern Style BBQ). We also have to contend with the constraints of the all-too-finite human appetite.
But unlike those scouring cube schedules, we know the lineup we're after tends to stay much the same from year to year. One of my headliners is always Sharon and Guilherme Wegner's fried alligator with fried jalapeno and onion rings (Food Area I), a choice that's as predictable and traditional for me as closing out the fest with the Neville Brothers' set would be for others. I know going into the festival grounds that the deep, dark pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo (Food Area II) from Prejean's of Lafayette will be a curtain raiser. And there is no surprise when the crabmeat-topped trout Baquet gets together on my plate as a combo with crawfish bisque from Lil' Dizzy's Restaurant (Heritage Square). That's not some spontaneous duo, but rather a pairing I know will come along at every fest.
The foodies' set list this year has a few new numbers, and one blast from the recent past. Papa Ninety Catering (Food Area I), the same vendor who does the uniquely refreshing crawfish remoulade, is also serving a shrimp and crab ravigote, a cool, creamy, classically Creole seafood salad. Taqueria Corona (Food Area II ) is adding to the lineup what is arguably the most popular item on its restaurant menu: fish tacos, fried in a puffy batter. And after a hiatus occasioned by the BP oil disaster, the oyster bar (Grandstand) is staging a comeback this year. A half-dozen salty, cold, raw oysters, a draft from the Fair Grounds-run beer carts around the Grandstand, plus the shade of the paddock patios have long made the adjacent Lagniappe Stage a cool oasis. That return deserves an ovation.
Given the endemic late hours we keep this time of year, some people inevitably arrive at Jazz Fest hungry for something more like breakfast than lunch. In this case, I recommend seeking out the sweet potato turnovers, with crusts as moist and rich as brownies from Marie's Sugar Dumplings (Congo Square). Add some cafe au lait from the nearby Cafe du Monde (Food Area II) and the day can properly begin.
It'll be a full day, too. As the music-obsessed race between performances, we tireless Jazz Fest food fanatics must juggle bowls and plates, keep our hands clean and always save a little room in the tank for the possibility of an irresistible entree encore.