NEW ORLEANS — Any Jazz Fester who knows anything will know that the food at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is, to many, just as important as anything else at the festival site.
Upon entering the Fair Grounds Race Course on Gentilly Boulevard, food fans flock to their favorite vendors en masse, waiting patiently in the hot sun — or even driving rain — to get a taste of the dishes they love, and in many cases have loved for years or even decades.
Given the impressive lines at the Patton’s Caterers Inc. booth yearning for crawfish sacks, oyster patties and crawfish beignets — now iconic Jazz Fest staples — you’d never know that, during their first foray into Jazz Fest vending 22 years ago, Patton’s had a difficult time enticing customers. The rain didn’t help.
“The first year we got involved with Jazz Fest was the first year they cancelled a day of the festival due to rain,” said Tim Patton. “But the next day, they opened up the grounds and we saw all these people going to their favorite booths, and we were just sitting there with nothing because we were the new guy. But then a local writer named us best of the fest that first weekend, so the second weekend we started getting more traffic. And from the following year to today, we’ve been wailing ever since.”
However, successfully vending at Jazz Fest is hardly an insignificant undertaking, especially if the crowds love what you have for them. The preparation alone is nearly unbelievable in its complexity and thoughtfulness.
Tim Patton — along with his sister, company Vice President Pat Patton, and brother/executive chef Terry Patton — hires upwards of 150 employees to prep, cook and vend their company’s signature dishes for Jazz Fest, all working in shifts to ensure that they’ll have enough fresh product to satiate the hungry masses.
At Patton’s Caterers’ home base in a historical plantation house in Slidell, teams of employees work in shifts to create their signature dishes. They prepare upwards of 25,000 crawfish sacks alone. Based on the “beggar’s purse” appetizers Tim Patton’s grandmother made from stuffed French crepes in his youth, the adorable bundles of deep-fried, savory goodness tied together with a wilted leek top are a must-have for thousands of Jazz Fest devotees.
Similarly, the oyster patties, a takeoff of a classic Louisiana vol-au-vent pastry filled with a thin oyster dressing, are based on a family holiday favorite dish, which Tim Patton’s father would make each year for Thanksgiving.
The third in Patton’s trinity of beloved Jazz Fest dishes, rounding out the “combo plate,” is delectable, deep-fried crawfish beignets. The Patton’s catering team works tirelessly to create the perfect batter, folded in with spicy, boiled crawfish tails, to be fried in batches.
Tim Patton estimates they sell roughly 100 gallons of that batter daily at the festival, each gallon resulting in about 125 beignets.
The combo plate sells for $13, and the individual dishes (crawfish sack, oyster patty, crawfish beignets) are $6 each.
It’s a wonderfully impressive sight, seeing kitchens and living rooms of Patton’s Caterers Inc.’s home base abuzz with workers folding crawfish sacks and tying them tightly, mixing beignet batter and perfectly portioning it out. It’s a tremendous amount of work, but Patton seems to relish it.
All this effort doesn’t get lost on Jazz Festers in love with Patton’s offerings.
“One time,” said Tim Patton, “an older woman fainted and fell on the ground right as she’d gotten to the front of the line at our booth. And so the first responders came and put her on a gurney and were ready to take her away, when she said, ‘Wait, wait ... I haven’t gotten my combo plate yet!’ I guess you really can’t keep a New Orleanian away from her food!”