New Orleans Jazz Fest Food Vendors Showcase the Region’s Cuisine and Community
"It’s our main family reunion every year," says Linda Wheat, who has served food at every Jazz Fest since 1980. "Those of us who scattered with [Hurricane] Katrina, we come back [for Jazz Fest]."
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The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival returns to the Big Easy this weekend. Over the course of the seven-day festival, more than 500 acts playing a variety of genres of music will take to the festival’s 12 stages; the eclectic mix of headliners includes Ludacris, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffet, Buddy Guy, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Erykah Badu, Death Cab for Cutie, The Who, and Melissa Etheridge. In addition to all of the music, there’s an impressive Jazz Fest food lineup as well, with more than 200 tasty offerings. The event is a terrific opportunity for local and regional food makers to showcase their fan-favorite dishes to the crowd, which, prior to the pandemic, was nearly 500,000 individuals spread throughout the week.
“Jazz Fest is not so much an event to us as it is a community,” says Peggy Miranda, a longtime food vendor. “It represents so much! We’ve been doing Jazz Fest for over 40 years, and all four of our daughters were basically in our booth since they were infants. They are now in their 30s and 40s and come work and have fun with us! Our 14 grandchildren are now are a wonderful part of building wonderful memories with us.”
It’s not only biological family, but a family of fellow vendors and friends, too.
“Our friends — fellow vendors — that we’ve made over the years are like family,” she says. “We pray together, laugh together, sweat together, dig in and work really hard together, and at times we roll our eyes together. It is a wonderful time filled with fun, incredible food scents, fantastic sounds, and unequaled art.”
When asked what returning to serve food at Jazz Fest for a 40th year, pie-maker Linda Wheat echoes the importance of community.
“It has always meant a lot as a family. My grandchildren and even great-grandchildren now are old enough to work in the booth,” she says. “It’s our main family reunion every year. Those of us who scattered with [Hurricane] Katrina, we come back [for Jazz Fest]. The other part of the family is that our booth has been neighbors with other booths all this time. We’re friends, and we care about each other.”
“Being part of Jazz Fest is fabulous,” says ‘Red Bean Queen’ Judy Burks. “I love what the Fest has done for the music community and the city, and am more than delighted that we’re back. I’m soon to be 80, so I’m wondering if I’ll last until my 50th year at the Fest,” she says. “Could be fun to try!”
New Orleans Jazz Fest Food Vendors to Seek Out for Vegetarian Dishes
Ba Mien Vietnamese Cuisine
“Jazz Fest’s carefully developed menu encompasses traditional Creole and Cajun recipes, contemporary Creole innovations, New Orleans standards, and foods that reflect the rich influx of international influence in Louisiana,” reads the festivals website.
One of those international influences comes to Jazz Fest courtesy of Ba Mien Vietnamese Cuisine.
When Amanda Thien-Nga Althaus’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in the mid-1970s, they settled in New Orleans. Her mother, Mai, followed her dreams and opened Ba Mien Vietnamese Cuisine in 2001. Years later, the Jazz Fest food administration team approached Mai and asked if she’d be interested in presenting dishes for consideration to be served at the festival.
“We thought, ‘why not,’?” recalls Amanda. “New Orleans and Vietnamese food are intertwined. We put in a bid and got it…it’s pretty awesome! To be included in a heritage festival is fantastic.”
Ba Mien began serving their Vietnamese dishes at Jazz Fest in 2009, and have been a festival staple ever since. Along the way, they added a vegetarian option — bun (vermicelli) with tofu.
“We were asked by our customers for vegetarian options, but we’re restricted menu-wise out here [at the festival],” says Amanda. “[At the time,] we could help them out with a plain bun bowl without protein.” She and her mom presented a tofu option to the festival’s food committee and were approved to serve the vegetarian option Jazz Fest food lovers had requested.
“It’s become a hit, and now tofu is on the menu as a protein option,” she adds.
Burks & Douglas
Judy Burks is known as the “Red Bean Queen” at Jazz Fest, and it’s no wonder: 2022 marks her 46th year at the Fair Grounds.
Judy met her current business partner, Morris Douglas, when he was her student at a high school where she was teaching art. “He was such a good person that I invited him to come work in the booth,” she recalls. When her original business partner passed away, Judy invited Morris to go into business with her, and the duo became known as Burks & Douglas. Morris’ sister Pam is a partner, too.
It was in the 1990s, Judy says, that the Jazz Fest food coordinator proposed vendors needed to offer vegetarian dishes.
“Red beans and rice is an iconic New Orleans dish, and is typically cooked with ham and sausage,” says Judy. “It’s a classic that everyone in New Orleans knows. The first year we prepared a vegetarian version I made one small pot of those [vegetarian] beans, about two gallons, and many very large pots of beans with meat. Every year since then demand has increased, so that now about one-third of our sales are vegetarian.”
The secret to Burks & Douglas’ popular red beans and rice, which Judy says look and taste pretty much like the classic beans?
“The vegetables — onion, garlic, celery, green peppers — are cooked with the beans for hours, until they are just part of the sauce, and pretty much invisible,” she explains.
Ten Talents Catering
Another popular vegetarian dish served at Jazz Fest is the spinach artichoke casserole from Peggy Miranda and Ten Talents Catering out of Covington, Louisiana. Peggy and her crew have been a part of the festival for more than 40 years.
The casserole is the first dish they served in 1977; she was a vegetarian at the time. “After being juried in by 15 voting judges, we were chosen as one of only four vendors accepted that year,” she says.
Now, in addition to the casserole, the Ten Talents booth offers a sweet potato pone, too — a cross between a bread and a cake. “It comes from an old, 100-plus year old recipe combination from the Creole culture,” says Peggy. “I tasted a version of sweet potato pone one time and and went to libraries — yep, no Internet or cell phones to look things up — to study the culture back 100 years ago. I went through many recipes to develop this one on my own,” she adds.
Mrs. Wheat’s Foods
Linda Wheat and her mother and brother made their debut at Jazz Fest in 1980 with their meat pies. Not long after, they piggybacked on their success at Jazz Fest to open a restaurant, where they introduced their now-signature broccoli-cheese pies. After the World’s Fair was held in New Orleans in 1984, the trio decided to close their restaurant and go into the wholesale business, opening Mrs. Wheat’s Foods. They still make their broccoli-cheese pies.
The inspiration for the vegetarian pies came from Linda’s daughters. “It was my children who liked it so much, my little girls,” she says, adding that one became vegan and vacillates between vegan and vegetarian. “She kind of got us going with it, really. We decided that she liked the pie so much, let’s put in the Jazz Fest for kids. Of course, it wasn’t just for kids. It is not truly a money maker, it is an act of love,” she adds.
In addition to the dishes noted here, other not-to-miss plant-based dishes that will be served at this year’s Jazz Fest include vegetarian muffulettas from DiMartino’s Famous Muffulettas; vegetarian Ya-Ka-Mein from Chef Linda, the Ya-Ka-Mein Lady; falafel sandwiches, hummus and Greek garden salads from Mona’s Café; and spicy grilled tofu and veggies with peanut sauce, grilled veggie pitas and couscous with yogurt sauce from Gambian Foods. Visit the Jazz Fest website for a complete listing.
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