New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
April 23-25, April 29-May 2
Fair Grounds Race Course, 1751 Gentilly Blvd.; www.nojazzfest.com
Tickets $45 in advance, $60 at the gate, $5 children
On a February weekend this year, while New Orleans celebrated Carnival, avid foodies descended on a Los Angeles parking lot to feast on a dazzling array of handheld dishes, all sold from dozens of gourmet food trucks gathered for the occasion like a nomadic food court. The event was the L.A. Street Food Fest, and it was a testament to a trend that's putting ever more elaborate, creative cuisine on the streets of some cities.
New Orleans is not one of them. Despite a few noble local efforts, the city just doesn't have that kind of intense and varied food truck scene. But during the seven days of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, we have something that looks a lot like it.
Granted, it's difficult for vendors to land a Jazz Fest berth and, yes, the public must buy festival tickets to get at the spread. But in the end, where the fork hits the mouth, Jazz Fest eating embodies the essential appeal driving the food truck trend. Whether it's a cochon de lait po-boy, crab-covered trout Baquet or zucchini and crawfish bisque, this is delicious food engineered for rapid service and easy consumption on the go — in this case while walking from stage to stage. It's not hard to imagine the success some enterprising cooks might have by taking Jazz Fest hits to the street year-round.
A few Jazz Fest vendors showcase street foods that have long been popular around New Orleans. For instance, the hot tamales, pralines and palm-sized sweet potato pies sold at the Fair Grounds are all sidewalk essentials of the home-spun street cuisine offered by the vendors who trail many second-line parades. These Sunday afternoon scenes also are home turf for Linda Green, better known to the second-line crowds as "the ya ka mein lady."
From her blue Dodge pickup, she sells foam cups of this curious, economical, faintly Asian noodle soup, made with bits of beef, lots of salty bouillon, boiled egg, green onions and spaghetti. Green says generations of home cooks, including her late mother Shirley, have supplemented incomes or raised cash for causes by peddling ya ka mein at local black-run bars. Green brought the family recipe to Jazz Fest in 2005, and she also prepares a vegetarian version with broccoli, carrots and cauliflower.
Another classic New Orleans street food served at Jazz Fest got its start from a tragedy more than a century ago. In 1901, Sam Cortese was 12 when he was run over by a streetcar and lost his legs below the knees. His grandson Ron Kotteman says the young amputee was soon forced out of school, so he took up the family business of selling vegetables in the street. He sometimes added Italian-style taffy, leftovers from family celebrations, and he noticed how well these simple candies sold. By 1915, he built a mule-drawn cart from which he could both make and sell the product he dubbed Roman chewing candy.
Kotteman left college to take over the family business when his grandfather died in 1969. He's been vending at Jazz Fest since 1973, and he and his mule Ada can be found driving the same 95-year-old cart in Uptown, selling his sugary, tooth-testing candy sticks from the shade of various St. Charles Avenue oaks.
Spaghetti noodle soup and Italian taffy are not quite as sexy as the Korean-fusion tacos and gourmet cupcakes from L.A.'s wildly diverse food truck scene. But they are essential foods of the New Orleans streets, and during the next two Jazz Fest weekends these streets happen to wend through the Fair Grounds.