From Crawfish Monica to praline beignets, New Orleans Jazz Fest food is back
Photos by Katie Sikora
For out of towners, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is about the music. But for locals, it’s all about the food.
“The thing about Jazz Fest food is that it’s its own entity,” said Ian McNulty, who covers restaurants and food culture for the Times-Picayune and NOLA.com. “It's much different from your typical festival, which may have basically glorified stadium food.”
Instead, at Jazz Fest, local restaurants and caterers — most of them small, family-run businesses — serve up a wide range of Louisiana delights. Think crab-meat stuffed beignets, jambalaya stewed in bathtub-sized cast iron pots, po-boys galore, along with dishes from immigrants who’ve made their home here.
Many vendors have fed the masses at Jazz Fest for decades. The festival — bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors into New Orleans for seven days of revelry — can be a lifeline.
That’s especially true as the pandemic and its economic fallout have dealt a big blow to the hospitality industry for over two years now, including shutting down three Jazz Fest events in 2020 and 2021.
“This is our biggest event for our business, every year,” said Roddrick Harrsion, co-owner of Loretta’s Authentic Pralines.
Harrison’s family has been making pralines for hungry festival goers since 1978, when his mom — the namesake Ms. Loretta — began the family business.
For him, the return to Jazz Fest this year is bittersweet. It’s the first time the family is at the event without her.
“She passed away two months ago,” Harrison said. “We’re just picking up the tradition where she left off. We’re holding it down for her, from above.”
Across the Fairgrounds, a long line snaked behind the Bennachin Restaurant’s tent, waiting for their Cameroonian and Gambian dishes on Jazz Fest’s opening day.
Behind a screen sheltering them from the afternoon sun, Alyse Mbongue and Fanta Tambajang served up jama jama — a sauteed spinach dish — along with grilled chicken on a skewer, and fried, sweet, ripe plantains.
They’ve been working at the festival for more than 30 years, Mbongue said. She’s glad to see some familiar faces from before the pandemic hiatus.
“It's very important our customers know that we are still here,” she said. “They're happy to see that we are still around.”
And as expected, there were dozens of people waiting at any given moment for Crawfish Monica, one of the most famed festival dishes. It's a sort of grown-up, crawfish-filled mac ‘n’ cheese.
Pierre Hilzim, of Big River Foods, couldn’t wait to serve it up for customers again this year.
“The anticipation was tremendous,” said Hilzim, who’s been working at Jazz Fest for 38 years. “It’s like missing Christmas two years in a row.”
Along with food service, Hilzim and his wife, the eponymous Monica, manage a selling agency for their product lines. It has helped them weather the pandemic.
But Hilzim knows not everyone has been so fortunate — and he wants to see more federal government aid for small businesses.
“If not, we're going to lose a whole bunch of mom and pops and be left with a lot of chain accounts,” he said.
The return of the festival isn’t just a money-making boon, said McNulty, the food writer. After the crowds leave the Fairgrounds for the day, they linger by the brass band on the street corner, or slip into a neighbor’s backyard for a crawfish boil.
“These are the good feelings of New Orleans people doing things together that we missed, that we were deprived of, by necessity, through the pandemic,” McNulty said.
“Seeing it come back, that's a lift that's more than economic, right? That's their spirit, and our morale.”