May 2, 2013
The annual Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana, is as famous for its music as it is for its food. In fact, some people insist it’s the po’boys and alligator pies that take center stage.
Born in 1970 and christened by the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Jazz Fest is unlike any other music festival in the country and not just because it actually has good food. Residents and tourists arrive by foot, bike and cab–some official and others just enterprising locals with a car. The acts are a mix of big names–Billy Joel, Black Keys, Frank Ocean–and local favorites–Rebirth Brass Band, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Trombone Shorty. When everything wraps up in the early evening, the crowd filters out into the streets, past colorful shotgun houses, to continue the party around town.
In other words, it’s not just a festival in New Orleans, it’s a festival of New Orleans. So what’s more New Orleans: the food or the music?
For many who have been coming for many years, the festival can’t get started until they have their favorite dish to kick things off. Catherine King makes a beeline for Patton’s Catering for an oyster patty, crawfish sack and crawfish beignet. “It’s my tradition every year. This is the first thing I have to have.”
And even though seafood tends to dominate the conversation and the cooking, Bill Storer says he comes for the fried chicken. “I travel around the world in search of good fried chicken,” he says and since 1998, he’s traveled to New Orleans from San Jose, California for a plate of the good stuff at Jazz Fest.
Over the years, he says things haven’t changed much but he did have to switch his morning dive bar routine after the one he frequented closed recently. “You like to start off in the morning at a good, seedy bar,” he explains, “Have a few drinks right off and then come here for lunch.” This year he settled on Ms. Mae’s, located across town. “It’s the ultimate dive bar. I was there and the lady said, please get out of the way, you’re standing in vomit.”
The festival puts food front and center. After walking in past the gospel and jazz tents, a wide lawn of tables and food stands opens to your right. Each vendor offers one plate or dish. You can get Storer’s fried chicken and Cajun jambalaya from New Orleans’ own Catering Unlimited or cheesy crawfish bread from Panorama Foods based in Marksville, Louisiana. With 22 stands representing all parts of Louisiana, this is just one of nine places to find a bite to eat so pace yourself.
Enchanted by the food, you might miss the truck off to your right, loaded up with produce courtesy a one Mr. Okra. Raised in the 3rd ward, he’s lived in the 8th for nearly 30 years but he’s known all over town. Mr. Okra can usually be found driving his truck loaded with lemons, greens and more through the streets of New Orleans, singing the day’s offering into a speaker system. Joined by his daughter and friend, Mr. Okra now offers his goods to Jazz Fest visitors as well. “I’ve been coming out here about three years. I like it,” he says seated in the truck with a view of the Jazz and Heritage stage, “You meet a lot of people.”
Unlike Storer’s shuttered dive bar, the festival has continued to grow over the years, surviving hurricanes and oil spills. According to retired shrimper Jim Hebert, the explanation for that is simple: “We still have the best seafood around and that’s coming from a Cajun in the seafood industry.” Po’Boy in hand, Hebert explains, “I’m kind of partial to shrimp, my family is in the shrimping business.”
Hebert hadn’t been back to Jazz Fest for nearly 20 years, but says it’s even better than he remembers. “Although it was fantastic back then, this has grown.” Spread over two weekends, the festival attracts hundreds of thousands of food and music fans. Twelve music tents offer a wide variety of experiences. If you want the big shows and big crowds, the Acura Stage offers that for more mainstream acts (and rather un-jazzy) including Maroon 5 and Fleetwood Mac. Breaking the trend at Acura, though, is one act you won’t want to miss: the legendary Trombone Shorty (so named because he was tearing it up even as a kid) and Orleans Avenue, performing Sunday. Meanwhile the Fais Do-Do Stage, named for the Cajun dance parties that borrowed the name from mothers whispering “fais do-do” or “go to sleep” to fussy children, has a smaller stage and bleachers you might even get a chance to sit on. For local acts, like the Stooges Brass Band or the festival favorite Mardi Gras Indians, the Jazz and Heritage Stage also offers a smaller space.
You can also catch some of the Mardi Gras Indians and second line bands as they parade through the festival itself. Born out of funerary traditions, the second-line parades are full of color and big brass and not to be missed. Everyone gets in on the action, including children, and crowds join in behind the slow march, clapping and dancing. There is a schedule but the felicitous appearance of the music makes it all the more infectious.
You can even park at one of the tables after getting your food and likely catch one of these high-energy parades.
A couple of Coors in front of him, Kenneth Gunndersson is digging into a mound of juicy red crawfish as a group of feathered Mardi Gras Indians go by. He traveled all the way from Sweden for the dish and he says it actually reminds him of home. “In Sweden, we eat crawfish but the spices are not that strong,” he explains, “We use dill and salt.”
“And vodka!” His friend interrupts.
“Yeah, we drink vodka too.” Gunndersson says crawfish are popular for a few weeks in August in Sweden. “I remember when I was a boy, fishing for crawfish with my brother, my father and my uncle. Every time I eat crawfish it reminds me of my home and my childhood.”
Halfway through a tour of cities that would take him to Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Mississippi; and Austin, Texas as well as New Orleans, Gunndersson says, “The best food? New Orleans, of course.”
If you can’t make it to Jazz Fest this weekend, listen in over at WWOZ.
September 23, 2011
I think I’ve known one person in my entire life who actually drinks straight-up buttermilk as a beverage. Something about a sour-tasting dairy drink is low on appeal for most Americans. (However, it should be noted that other nationalities have similar cultured dairy beverages that are very popular.) But, oh, the things it can do to in tandem with other ingredients.
Today’s buttermilk is really fermented milk, different from the byproduct of butter-churning from olden days. Because it contains high amounts of lactic acid, buttermilk is excellent at helping baked goods rise and at tenderizing meat, not to mention adding tangy flavor to other recipes. The problem is that it always seems to be sold in a larger quantity than any one recipe calls for. And, although it has a fairly long shelf life, it’s always a challenge to find enough uses for the remainder before it goes to waste. Here are a few ideas to help make full use of your next quart.
1. Marinate meats. According to Fine Cooking magazine, buttermilk and yogurt are the only marinades that truly work to tenderize meat. Vinegar-based marinades are too acidic and could actually make meat tougher, while for some reason—possibly the calcium—the only slightly acidic buttermilk seems to stimulate the breakdown of proteins. However it works, it’s especially good with chicken, whether grilled (as in this simple marinade from Cheeky Kitchen) or fried (like this double-dipped version from Epicurious).
2. Add low-fat creaminess. Low-fat buttermilk is creamier and more flavorful than regular low-fat milk, so it’s perfect for mashed potatoes (this herbed recipe from Dash and Bella also contains butter, but it sure sounds good); creamy soups, like a buttermilk summer squash soup from 101 Cookbooks; or sauces, like Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s fish poached in buttermilk, from the New York Times.
3. Cook up breakfast. Some of the best morning foods are even better with buttermilk. It makes for fluffy pancakes, crispy outside/soft inside waffles (so says Smitten Kitchen), and rich scones (these lemon-blueberry buttermilk scones from Sing For Your Supper sound delicious).
4. Bake some bread. Buttermilk’s slight acidity helps activate baking soda and make bread rise. It’s the traditional liquid used in Irish soda bread. Oatmeal buttermilk bread gets high marks from Clockwork Lemon. And chances are good Grandma’s delicious, flaky biscuits were made with buttermilk. Sweet breads also get low-fat moistness from buttermilk, as in this banana-blueberry buttermilk bread from Eating Well magazine.
5. Save room for dessert. The same moistness also does wonders for cake, whether Bon Appétit magazine’s blackberry buttermilk cake or what the Pioneer Woman calls the best chocolate sheet cake. Ever. And don’t forget the Southern specialty, sweet, custardy buttermilk pie; Homesick Texan shares her Grandma Blanche’s recipe, which you just know has to be good.
November 22, 2010
We’ve received such wonderful stories from readers in response to our latest Inviting Writing theme about eating at Grandma’s house—thank you! This one, a richly detailed recollection of Southern-style family dinners in the 1950s and early 1960s, seems perfect for Thanksgiving week because it’s a veritable feast of description. The writer, Mary Markey, has a knack for preserving the past: she works at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
By Mary Markey
Every year, my mother and I took the train from Illinois to spend the summer with our family in Georgia. The “Nancy Hanks” would pull into the little train station in Millen late in the evening, where we were met by an uncle and aunt or two and whichever of my cousins had begged the hardest to make the trip. Our trunk was loaded into the bed of the truck, the cousins and I clambered up after it, and we were off to Granny’s house in the country.
In the immense dark, her porch light glowed like a beacon. And there she was, wiping her hands on her homemade apron, come to the doorway to meet us. Small, round, and soft and rosy as a withered peach, Granny was the heart and soul of our family.
Aunts and uncles and more cousins were soon assembling on the porch. Transplanted early to the Midwest, where I was already a lonely outsider, here I was content to be taken back into the fold of a large, extroverted Southern family. I looked forward to a summer of many playmates and indulgent grownups.
Cuddled in with a few cousins in the spare room’s creaky iron bedstead, I smelled the deep, mysterious odors of Granny’s house—old wood, damp earth, wood smoke, cooking and the chamber pot that we had used before turning in. On the porch, the adults would stay up late talking as they rocked in chairs or on the glider. Their laughter was the last thing I heard as I drifted into sleep.
When we woke, the uncles were long gone to the fields, and the aunts were at work in the textile mills in town. My mother was in the kitchen, helping Granny prepare the noon dinner. We snatched a cold hoecake or leftover biscuit smeared with jelly and took off on our own adventures.
Granny’s house was a one-story frame building that had once housed a tenant farmer on my grandfather’s farm. The dining-room was light and airy, with windows on two sides curtained in the translucent plastic plisse curtains that the dime stores once sold to poor people, but the kitchen was a dark, close little room. In the even darker little pantry were Mason jars of home-canned food, plates of leftover breads and biscuits, and an occasional mouse.
My nose remembers these rooms best: open Granny’s big freezer, and you smelled frost and blackberries. The refrigerator held the sharp tang of the pitcher of iron-rich well water cooling there. The kitchen was saturated with years of cooking, a dark, rich scent of frying fat and spice overlaid with the delicious smells of whatever was being prepared for dinner that day.
Almost everything was raised by my family and if not fresh, had been frozen or canned by Granny and the aunts. Meat was the anchor of the noon meal, and there were three possibilities: chicken, pork, or fish. The fish, caught by my Aunt Sarah from the Ogeechee River, were delectable when dredged in flour or cornmeal and cooked in Granny’s heavy cast-iron skillet. (Did you know, the best part of a fried fresh fish is the tail, as crunchy as a potato chip?) My favorite dish was chicken and dumplings. Granny made the dumplings by hand, forming the dough into long, thick noodles to be stewed with the chicken until they were falling-apart tender.
There was bread, though nothing leavened with yeast. Instead, there were biscuits, rather flat and chewy, speckled brown and gold. We had cornbread at every meal, but it wasn’t “risen”; we had hoecakes, light and sweet with the flavor of fresh cornmeal, cooked quickly on a cast-iron griddle. There was always rice, cooked to perfection and topped with gravy or butter, as you preferred. If we were eating fish, we fried some hush puppies along with it, airy puffs of cornmeal and onion.
And the vegetables! Granny’s table had an infinite variety: fresh green beans, black-eyed peas, crowder peas, lima beans. Collard, mustard and turnip greens had been picked last fall and stored in the mammoth freezer. Okra was stewed with tomatoes, boiled with butter, fried to a crisp or just sautéed until it fell apart. Fresh tomatoes were served cold, sliced, and dusted with salt and pepper. There were yams, candied or simply baked and buttered. Green vegetables were cooked a long time with salt pork—no hard, unseasoned Yankee beans for us, please.
We washed it all down with heavily sweetened iced tea served in mismatched jelly glasses, or aluminum tumblers in jewel colors, or in that cliché of all down-home clichés, Mason jars.
Desserts were simple, probably because too much baking would heat up the house. There was an abundance of fresh fruit—peaches and watermelons were favorites, with or without store-bought ice cream. My aunt Camille would sometimes bring a spectacular caramel pecan cake with dense, sugary icing. Aunt Carmen was known for her sour cream pound cake. Granny often made a huge blackberry cobbler, served drenched in milk. I was torn between by love of its flavor and distaste for all those little seeds that got caught between my teeth.
As small children, we cousins ate at the kitchen table, watched over by the women. It was a day to remember when you were finally thought old enough to sit at the big table in the dining room, and since all of us were all within a year or two of each other, we graduated pretty much en masse. In adolescence, we cousins often preferred to perch in the living room to talk, pawing through Granny’s photo albums to laugh at our parents’ (and be embarrassed by our own) baby pictures. We returned to the big table more often as we moved through our teenage years, and one day, as a married woman in my twenties, I looked up from my fried chicken to see a kitchen table ringed with my cousins’ children. The cycle was completed.
(More from Millen after the jump…)
June 25, 2010
I’ve had picnics in the fall, spring, and even, like Amanda, in the dead of winter. (In college, my friends and I tried to make “blizzard s’mores” outside on a charcoal grill. It wasn’t our finest moment.) But I’ve always associated my best picnics with that carefree, summer feeling: a shining sun, running barefoot in the grass, and sipping on lemonade (or sangria) under a large, shady tree.
There’s almost no wrong time to have a picnic, but there are several food items that never feel quite right: foods that will spoil; foods that are meant to be cold, or piping hot, since you can rarely guarantee either; and foods that require labor-intensive eating methods.
Keeping those guidelines in mind, here are, in no particular order, some of the best and worst picnic foods, based on my own experience and some informal polling on Twitter.
1. Ice Cream/ Ice Cream Sandwiches: While picnicking last week, I actually saw a mother pull a box of these out of her cooler and give them to her children. There was a lot of crying, sticky hands and vanilla- and chocolate-stained clothing. I understand the nostalgia surrounding ice cream and summertime. But even if you’re driving straight from home to your picnic site, odds are it won’t make it. Save it for a special stop on the way home.
2. Potato or Egg Salad: This may be biased, since I’ve always been scared of mayonnaise, but eating something covered in mayonnaise that has been out of the refrigerator for a few hours doesn’t sound very appealing. It’s the same kind of reaction people have to warm milk, or that cream cheese your coworker left sitting out in the office kitchen from the morning until you leave at night. Just don’t do it. I have, though, had success with roasting red or sweet potatoes the night before, and serving them with heat-friendly dipping sauces (ketchup, honey mustard) the next day.
3. Chocolate: Chocolate is the siren of picnic foods. It calls to you with sweet promises of happiness and no mess, but when you get to the picnic with M&Ms and thumbprint peanut butter cookies with Hershey Kisses, it rears its ugly head: your package of M&Ms feel like one of those first aid heat packs, and your beautiful, sugar-encrusted cookies look like a pile of poo. Your brother will tell you so, in even less eloquent words.
4. Fried Chicken: Aside from the dangers associated with cooking meat, cooling it down and letting it sit in the sun for a few hours, fried chicken is just plain messy. Your guests might seem excited when you show up with a bunch of fried wings or drumsticks, but it’s only because they’ve temporarily forgotten what eating those things entails: a whole lot of napkins; discarded, gooey bones; and at least two grease stains on your favorite shirt.
5. Anything you have to cut with a knife: This was the overwhelming “worst picnic food” response in my informal Twitter poll. Cutting food when you’re eating on your lap is hard. Cutting on a paper plate is hard. If it’s windy, even having a paper plate is hard. And cutting with a plastic knife is almost impossible.
1. Pasta or Bean Salad: Despite my rant against potato salad earlier, there are a lot of great salads that make perfect picnic foods. Toss some pasta with pesto, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, or salad dressing, and then add some vegetables and fresh herbs. There are endless possibilities. (For inspiration: My favorite bean salad is a combination of pinto, black and kidney beans, corn, tomatoes, onion, lime juice, cilantro and salt. Anyone else want to share their favorites?)
2. Cheese and Crackers or Chips and Dip: Another set of perfect marriages. And if you buy individually packaged cheese like babybel (which my colleague Abby also recommends for backpacking food), it’s even easier.
3. Sandwiches: Tuna, egg or chicken salad probably won’t make the cut. But vegetables, hummus and the classic peanut butter and jelly can all be unrefrigerated for a while. They’re easy to make, pack and transport and even easier to eat. Add in fun things like basil, sundried tomatoes, artichokes, or pesto if you’re looking for something a little more classy. If you’re serving a group, make a few different kinds of sandwiches and cut them into small squares. Finger food at its finest.
4. Vegetable Crudites: Vegetable platters are fairly easy to make. If you don’t have time, pre-made platters are also pretty easy to buy. You can also have fun with different dipping options.
5 Watermelon: Fruit salad deserves to be on this list, but everyone who responded to our little Twitter poll listed watermelon as the best picnic food. Cut at home, it’s easy to serve and eat and is refreshing even if it’s a little bit warm. Plus, then you can have a seed-spitting contest. Just make sure you aren’t too close to other picnickers.
What foods would be on your best and worst list?
July 23, 2009
Reasonable people may differ on the tastiness of Chicken McNuggets or the latest nacho-cheese-and-bacon-laden burrito novelty at Taco Bell, but there is one attribute of fast food I think we can all agree on: it’s fast. Well, and it’s cheap. But it’s not healthy, and it certainly isn’t pretty.
That is, it’s not pretty until the wizard behind a blog called Fancy Fast Food gets a hold of it. Erik R. Trinidad, the site’s creator, shows that by taking fast out of the equation you can turn an ordinary Happy Meal into a “culinary masterpiece.”
I’ve written previously about the time and effort food stylists put into prettying up menu items to be photographed for ads, but the dishes on Fancy Fast Food are complete transformations. Trinidad, though not a professional stylist, traces the roots of his interest in food presentation to his childhood. “My brother and I used to play what we called ‘Iron Chef Buffet’ at those Chinese buffets, trying to outdo each other with the fanciest presentation of a dish,” he says.
His creations include the BK Quiche, constructed from disassembled Burger King breakfast sandwiches. Spicy Chicken Sushi is made from Popeye’s fried chicken. Tacobellini is a tortellini-resembling dish made from Taco Bell burritos and tacos. My favorite entry, Tapas de Castillo Blanco, is a platter of finger foods made from White Castle Slyders and fried clams. All of the dishes include recipes and helpful photos, should you wish to replicate these impressive-looking (if not tasting) meals. The visual transformations don’t really improve the food’s flavor, Trinidad says. “It’s all processed food anyway, and I just add another process.”
The site started as a goof on the “foodie” movement, he says. “I think the pretentiousness that comes with calling oneself a ‘foodie’ has gone overboard these days, and FancyFastFood.com aims to poke fun at these self-important gourmands as if to say, ‘Hey, you can have fancy food too, just by going to McDonald’s or Taco Bell!’ Granted, it’s still bad for you.”
Aspiring fast food gourmets can also submit their own creations to the site. The rules are that you can only use food purchased at a fast food restaurant, without other ingredients (except as a simple garnish), and you have to send before and after photos.
The latest submission, a Wendy’s Napoleon made from a Baconator Combo, was whipped up by Adrian Fiorino, and includes an impressive spun sugar garnish and a sauce made from Coke and ketchup. Judging from the link to his own blog, Insanewiches, Fiorino is a guy who enjoys playing with cold cuts. Take note of the Rubix Cubewich, a truly horrifying concoction of cubed meats, cheeses and pork fat.