La. cuisine star of N.O. Jazz and Heritage Festival

Since its earliest days, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has worked as an economic incubator for potential new restaurant and catering businesses.

As it has been since the beginning, festival vendors must be Louisiana residents and they are urged to use Louisiana products in their dishes.

New Orleans’ defining festival and its foods have come far since 1970, when fried chicken, sausage po-boys and red beans and rice were sold at the original Congo Square location. This year, more than 60 vendors will serve more than 200 unique foods.

The vast array of selections available around the Fair Grounds allows the grazer to embark on a gastronomic tour that explores every aspect of Louisiana’s indigenous Cajun and Creole cuisines as well as flavors from Africa, Jamaica, Japan, Brazil and Vietnam.

The food is every bit as much a star as the world-class music on nearby stages, and it’s impossible to go wrong when choosing what to eat. Wise attendees will show up with wallets stuffed with cash and at least one other eating partner with whom to share, allowing for even greater sampling.

Perennial favorites include Love at First Bite Catering’s last-meal-worthy cochon de lait po-boy dressed with cole slaw, hot sauce and bits of cracklins; crisp-on-the-outside-creamy-on-the-inside fry bread and robust macque choux from the Native American Indians of the United Houma Nation; deep, dense pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo from Prejean’s in Lafayette; luscious Crawfish Monica from Kajun Kettle; cheesy crawfish bread from Panaroma Foods in Marksville; and Trout Baquet, an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink filé gumbo and a brick-hued Creole-style crawfish bisque with fat, stuffed heads from Li’l Dizzy’s Café.

Each year in early April, Tina Cockerham starts stuffing the 10,000 precleaned crawfish heads Li’l Dizzy’s will need for the 3,500 or so portions of bisque sold annually at its festival booth.

“I’m on the phone with her every day from the fest,” said Wayne Baquet, the restaurant’s chef-owner, “and I feel real bad when I have to say ‘T, it’s time to get on it again. You’ve got to stuff some more heads.’ But people want it. They want that bisque. We put three in every bowl, two if the heads are really big.”

Traditional favorites always will have a place on the Jazz Fest menu, but contemporary and ethnic dishes revolve in and out in keeping with culinary trends. This year, Gambian Foods changed up its game and worked spicy grilled tofu and veggies with peanut sauce into its offerings to keep up with increasing demand for vegan selections without meat or dairy.

Also keeping the culinary offerings fresh and lively is the practice of focusing each year on the culture of a specific country.

This year’s country is Brazil. Making its festival debut this year, Carmo, of New Orleans, will flush out the culinary aspect of Brazilian culture with offerings of acarajé, a black-eyed pea fritter with shrimp and a spicy cashew sauce; a vegan acarajé without shrimp; and pão de queijo, a cheese bread that’s a popular Brazilian street food.

For those without plans to partake of the fine foods at the festival, a selection of recipes is offered for some time-honored festival favorites.