Losing the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival back in 2020 was a staggering blow to festival food vendor Patton’s Caterers. And yet, when things seemed most dark, it was the spirit of Jazz Fest that provided some light.
Patton’s produces the head-turning combo platter of crawfish beignets, oyster patties and crawfish sacks at Jazz Fest. In April 2020, in the era of socially distant “Festing in Place,” the company started a drive-thru operation at its Slidell home base to sell the plates again.
The response exceeded all expectations, with cars lining the street and people crossing state lines for a taste, and for some semblance of a Jazz Fest experience.
“We thought this was the end of us, and we thought no one would come out, but we were shocked by how people responded. It was so heartwarming and mind-blowing,” said Erin Merrick, part of the third generation of the Patton’s family now running the business.
It was the boost, both in finances and morale, that the family needed as it coped with its full party and event calendar in sudden disarray. Now, the catering company is busy once again, and in full festival prep mode.
“Coming back to Jazz Fest feels like we’re coming home, like we’ve been away for so long and we’re finally coming home,” Merrick said.
Patton’s example is one case in many of the scrambling, pivoting and collaboration that marked the path of Jazz Fest food vendors through the pandemic.
In order to return to Jazz Fest, these mostly small, local businesses had to keep intact through two years of frequent, sometimes whipsaw change.
Most have made it, and while this year’s Jazz Fest brings more changes than usual (see related story), this is still largely the Jazz Fest food lineup that people recognize.
Keeping doors open, hope alive
The distinctive crawfish, spinach and zucchini bisque and the merguez sausage po-boy are back at Jazz Fest’s Food Area 2 because Jamila’s Restaurant was able to hang on as everything fell apart.
Jamila and Moncef Sbaa have been serving the French-accented North African flavors of their native Tunisia in this snug Uptown cafe for 30 years. It defines mom and pop, and that means there was little to fall back on during the crisis.
“It’s been one day at a time. You feel like an athlete who accomplishes something and wonders how he did it,” Moncef Sbaa said. “Some nights I’m the waiter, the busboy, the dishwasher, and you do it.”
But they kept at it. Even in takeout-only mode, regulars met them halfway. A nearby business, Langenstein’s grocery, even started stocking that bisque in its deli to help them out.
“We keep working, for us but for the city too,” Sbaa said. “And that’s just like the fest. The city needs its restaurants and needs its festivals.”
United Houma Nation makes a stand
It was the added burden of Hurricane Ida that has guided changes this year for the United Houma Nation.
Many from this indigenous tribe of southeast Louisiana are still coping with damage across their communities from the powerful hurricane, with took straight aim at the bayou region.
The kitchen facilities normally used for prep work before Jazz Fest are unavailable. That building, in the bayou town of Dulac, has been pressed into service as a church, while repairs to the community’s usual church progress.
“At first we didn’t think we could even come out this year,” said tribal administrator Lanore Curole. “But the Jazz Fest people said, ‘Let’s not talk about what you can’t do. Let’s talk about what you can do.’”
The result sees the United Houma Nation serving only foods they can prep on site at their stand in the Louisiana Folklife Village at Jazz Fest. Missing this year is the corn macque choux and also Indian tacos.
But they’ll have an important heritage dish, fry bread – topped with honey or powdered sugar – and a new version, sweet potato fry bread bites – on their own or wrapped around strawberries.
Collaborating past obstacles
While the overall feeling is one of relief and return for food vendors, they are still managing an industry-wide reality of higher prices, unpredictable supply chains, and shortages, even for the banal basics of rental trucks to get their supplies and food inventory to the festival.
But, they are finding ways to get it done, often with help from each other, something underscored during the pandemic.
During the span when that first pandemic Jazz Fest should have happened, and to some extent the following year, many food vendors collaborated on pop-ups and special events, banding together to make it happen.
Big River Foods, the maker of Jazz Fest food staple crawfish Monica, was right in the thick of those events with Cottage Catering, maker of crawfish strudel and white chocolate bread pudding. The two now are coordinating cold storage and refrigerated truck space to pull off their respective Jazz Fest efforts.
“Those of us who have been there a long time know what each other needs, so we’re helping out,” said Pierre “Pete” Hilzim, who runs Big River Foods with his wife, crawfish Monica namesake Monica Davidson.
He said vendors can’t necessarily rely on running their Jazz Fest operations the same way as before, because of problems in logistics and sourcing. But, he said, the overriding feel is excitement, and anticipation for feeding what many are projecting to be big returning festival crowds.
“There’s so much pent-up demand for this,” Hilzim said. “Everyone is jazzed about it, all the vendors are.”
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