New Orleans celebrates music, food

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Music lovers might argue the relative coolth of the newer jazz groups heard at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but there's no argument about the food. That which is hot is HOT.

These mouth-burning delicacies include such soul food staples as crimson mountains of boiled crawfish, 60-gallon iron pots of jambalaya, and mounds of red beans and rice.

There are also rivers of gumbo, and 36 other varieties of Louisiana fare to be sampled at this festival of music and food in the Crescent City.

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The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, this year slated for April 29 through May 8, its 14th year, is not only a cornucopia of music, but a smorgasbord of Louisiana food.

The food comes from New Orleans and also from villages and towns along the bayous, and the dusty highways of Louisiana, north, south, east and west.

Many folk settled this marshy, swampy, subtropical, multi-ethnic state - the Indians, followed by the French, Spaniards, African Negroes, Germans and Irish, and the people of the Caribbean.

Their stamp is on the food dished out at the 40 kiosks located in four huge tents at the Festival at the Fairgrounds of New Orleans, La.

The well-loved traditional dishes are still the most popular. Lines are longest for red beans and rice, jambalaya, crawfish, ''po boys'' and gumbo.

But with 40 titles on the menu, there are bound to be new entries, all ethnic Louisiana foods, or at least local favorites.

For instance, there's a dish called Callallo, a wonderful vegetable soup-stew , made with the leafy green vegetable, callallo, which I've had at the Club Med in Martinique, but never in Louisiana.

And there are the Natchitoches meat pies, which taste more like Siberian piroshki which my Russian mother used to make, than anything on anybody's plantation down in the cane fields.

Natchitoches is in northern Louisiana, almost on the Texas border. The maker of these meat pies, Helen Wheat, who speaks with a soft Texas drawl, explains that they were popular for many decades at Melrose Plantation, and were introduced by the slaves.

But some folks maintain there were several Russian families around Melrose in the mid-1860s, and they probably are the parents of the pies.

Some of the stands are manned by individuals and their friends, others by whole families, and still others by organizations.

The organizations seem to fare the best. Noted Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme and I once had a stand at the Jazz Festival where we sold crawfish pies, and lost our shirts.

Two of the most popular dishes are the work of the good ladies of two churches, the Second True Love Baptist Church, and the Second Mount Triumph Baptist Church.

The specialty of the first group is barbecued chicken and cole slaw, while the Mount Triumph cooks specialize in fried chicken and potato salad, which Mimi Sheraton once described as the world's finest potato salad.

After the first few years of a fairly hit or miss operation, the food sector of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is now under strict quality control.

The Food Festival Director and his staff eat through some 150 samples before they decide on the 40 who will provide the specialties that year.

John Murphy, for several years the director of food, and himself once a vendor, said, ''We want people to come, eat, and enjoy the food and the music. We try to keep prices down so that everyone can sample what we have to offer.''

Because the prices are not cheap, mostly in the $3 category, the best way to sample is to go with a group, and everyone can get something different, so that each person in the group can sample a ''bouche'' or mouthful of the variety of items.

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