This weekend, while Atlanta is chock-full of margarita-fueled Cinco De Mayo celebrations and mint julep-sipping Kentucky Derby parties, I won’t be thinking about tequila and tacos or bourbon and hot brown. I’ll be dreaming of crawfish pie, file gumbo, and an absinthe-swirled Sazerac.
I’m gonna miss Jazz Fest again this year. And that means I’m really gonna miss New Orleans.
Once upon a time, I never missed Jazz Fest. I started going every year with a group of college friends from Florida. We’d hit I-10, detouring to search out oyster shacks and barbecue joints on the way. In New Orleans, we’d take over a few rooms in a cheap motel, knowing we wouldn’t sleep much, anyway. And we’d let the good times roll.
At Jazz Fest, I discovered the joys of James Booker, Allen Toussaint, Eddie Bo, the Meters, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Champion Jack Dupree, Ernie K-Doe, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Snooks Eaglin, Johnny Adams, Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis, Canray Fontenot, D. L. Menard, Beausoleil and so many more. Sadly, I never got to see Professor Longhair.
But beyond the music, the food so captivated my imagination that I joked that I came to Jazz Fest to eat; the music was just a pleasant diversion.
In those days, much like the rest of the festival, the food was cheap, plentiful and real. Many of the booths scattered around the Fair Grounds Race Course infield featured mom-and-pop restaurants, churches, and social aid and pleasure clubs that served up delights like soft-shell crab, cochon de lait, crawfish Monica, and the famous oyster patty, crawfish sack and crawfish beignet combo.
I’m not bragging or complaining when I confess that the first cookbook I ever took on as a serious project was “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen,” published in 1984 at a price of $19.95.
I bought it because I wanted to figure out how to make some of the things I always looked forward to eating at Jazz Fest. And without knowing what I was doing, I learned a few pretty good techniques, like how to make a basic or rich stock, and stir up roux that ranged from light brown to black, while discovering the dangers of what Chef Paul called “Cajun napalm.”
I particularly remember trying Prudhomme’s Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo for the first time.
The recipe started with homemade chicken stock. And it called for cutting up a chicken to make fried chicken, which was delicious on its own. So why not stop there?
But then, you used some of the frying oil to make a roux, and finally boned and diced the fried chicken to stir in with vegetables and sausage and finish the gumbo.
It was fairly complicated and impressive stuff for someone with a basic repertoire of omelets, burgers and casseroles. And I often think about my reaction to what it took to make that gumbo when I’m confronted with the likes of a Thomas Keller recipe that requires four or five sub-recipes.
If you miss New Orleans, or want to learn how to make a roux, or just want to eat some crawfish and let the good times roll, there are couple of events coming up with a Louisiana flavor.
Watershed Executive Chef Joe Truex stirs the pot on May 8 at The Third Space, as he teaches the origins and the process of making roux and gumbo. $85. thethirdspaceatl.eventbrite.com
Scoutmob Hand-Picked has a new deal for a crawfish boil on May 18 at Serpas. $45. handpicked.scoutmob.com