GRETNA — Brian Rooney of Atlanta claimed his spot for the day, and it wasn’t at one of the seven stages at the Gretna Heritage Festival.
Don’t get him wrong. He wasn’t intentionally avoiding the music Sunday. After all, the likes of Pat Green, Big & Rich and the Bucktown All-Stars were on the schedule as were Kermit Ruffins, Papa Grows Funk and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk.
But when he and his wife, in-laws and 7-week-old daughter Sophia made the rounds of food vendors, he knew that his seat of choice would be in the dining tent.
“I won’t be able to eat tomorrow,” he said between bites of corn on the cob and bacon-wrapped fried shrimp.
He figured he’d sample at least eight, possibly 10 more dishes, everything from spinach artichoke dip to shrimp po-boy, before calling it quits.
As he spoke, his mother-in-law brought an order of fried green tomatoes and Hawaiian pork chops to the table, prompting Rooney to break into a huge smile.
“I may not have to leave this spot all day,” he said as he cut into the tomatoes.
Welcome to Day 3 of the Gretna Heritage Festival, a something-for-everyone affair that in its 18 years of existence has grown from a single-stage event to a 25-block extravaganza, featuring seven music venues, more than 100 kinds of cuisine, carnival rides and an arts and crafts market.
To accommodate football fanatics, many of whom donned their Sunday black-and-gold, the fest even boasted a massive-screen TV.
As festivalgoers poured onto the grounds Sunday, fest Chairman Ricky Templet, a member of the Jefferson Parish Council, surveyed the goings-on from a golf cart, stopping periodically to chat with vendors, volunteers and everyone else he credits with making the festival such a smashing success.
“We’ve had great crowds,” said Templet, estimating attendance at more than 100,000 over the three days. “This has truly become a regional event, growing bigger and better every year.”
Templet recalled the first festival as a cultural event aimed at helping Gretna’s nonprofit community create income.
As the event caught on with West Bankers and eventually New Orleanians, organizers expanded the venue to accommodate the crowds.
Accolades followed, with such groups as the Southeastern Tourism Society, the American Bus Association and AAA Southern Traveler naming the festival as a top attraction in the South. Today, Templet said, fest-goers hail from all over the United States.
Templet said members of the 1970s band Foreigner, which performed at the Main Stage along the Mississippi River Friday night, were wowed by the crowds.
“One of them said, ‘There must have been 10,000 people out there.’ To them it was just like the old days,” Templet said.
Linda Bakke and her friends, Susan Gaudry and Cathy Brawley, both of Metairie, set up their chairs at the Gretna Fest Stage where the Bucktown All-Stars were scheduled to perform.
Bakke, who lives outside Washington, D.C., said she planned her trip around the Gretna Heritage Festival as well as the upcoming Louisiana Swamp Festival and the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival.
She and Gaudry were dining on pheasant, quail and Andouille gumbo, which both agreed was heavenly. But they weren’t stopping there.
“The crawfish bread wasn’t ready yet,” Bakke said, “but as soon as I’m finished with this, I’m going to go back for that.”
Max Burke, who helped staff a food booth, said the festival has been a godsend for his nonprofit group, the Visitation of Our Lady Men’s Club, which uses its proceeds to fund an array of community service projects.
He and his fellow volunteers were preparing fried catfish and fried eggplant with seafood sauce.
This is our 10th year here,” he said. “We tell people to come get their food and go on the levee where they can watch ships passing by while they’re listening to music. It doesn’t get much better than that.”