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Story by Beth D’Addono
Photos courtesy WWOZ 90.7FM
Leave it to New Orleans, Louisiana to figure out how to party during a pandemic.
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival draws upwards of 475,000 music lovers to the city the each year from the last weekend in April through the first weekend in May for seven days of music, art and food. The festival, which draws obsessed fans from all corners of the globe, took place every year for 50 years. Until 2020, which would have been its 51st.
When New Orleans went into lockdown mid-March, it seemed impossible that the pandemic would literally shut down everything about New Orleans that makes the city great: restaurants, bars, second lines, live music, and festivals. On April 14, mayor Latoya Cantrell announced that there would be no events or festivals through the rest of the year.
What? No Crawfish Monica? The iconic dish—made with crawfish tails, cream and plenty of butter—is one of the most popular eats served at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
“It was stunning, literally, when the impossible became reality,” says Beth Arroyo Utterback, general manager of WWOZ, the city’s beloved, commercial-free New Orleans music station. The cancellation of not just Jazz Fest, but French Quarter Fest, Crescent City Blues and Barbecue Fest, Satchmo Summer Fest, Essence Festival, and so many more events, dealt a devastating blow to the economy, turning what is usually the city’s biggest earning season for small businesses into a terrifying drought. “We figured there had to be some way to support the artists and food vendors, so we created Festing in Place,” she says.
The response, to put it mildly, was monumental. WWOZ Facebook posts during Jazz Festing in Place reached more than 2.7 million people. “We started getting photos of people all over the world—South Korea, Japan, Serbia, Australia, France—festing in their home settings. And most had food,” says Arroyo Utterback. “When we posted the recipe for Crawfish Monica on our social media page, it got 309,975 views. I knew people were crazy about our food, but I was blown away. There were people all over the place making Jazz Fest dishes for their family; and some were even delivering to friends and neighbors who would have been at Fest.” From fried soft shell crab po’boys to jambalaya, white chocolate bread pudding to crawfish enchiladas and rosemint tea, the power of creating and sharing foods that would have been eaten at the festival made the sting of missing it just a little easier to take.
Arroyo Utterback, who grew up in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood, got the idea for Festing in Place from something her now-deceased parents did years ago: They turned their carport into fest central. “My mom had lost her eyesight and getting around the Fairgrounds was too difficult,” she says. “So they streamed WWOZ’s live broadcasts, filled the fridge full of cold beer and drinks, made a pile of food, and invited the neighborhood to join them. My dad used to say it was just like Jazz Fest, except without the lines to the bathroom. It was so fun for them. So I figured, why can’t we all do that since we’re stuck at home?”
In another NOLA neighborhood, Mid-City, Ronnie Evans and Phil Moseley, co-owners of Blue Oak BBQ restaurant, tried to think of a way to help gig workers and, well, cheer everybody up. They dreamed up Faux Fest. “We wanted to lift everybody’s spirits,” says Moseley. “We were missing out on something we all love so much, at a time when there was so much uncertainty. There was just such a down vibe in the city.”
So for every day of what would have been Jazz Fest, plus a few weekend days before and after, the pair teamed up with chefs all over town to provide free lunches, all with some element of Jazz Fest fare. Over 15 days, they handed out 8,000 meals from their drive-through warehouse, complete with a live brass band to get everybody in the spirit. “People were crying—it was very emotional,” he says. They contracted with Dale Koehl, producer of the rabidly popular mango freeze ice cream sold at Jazz Fest, and most lunches included a scoop. “People were crazy about that because it’s so Jazz Fest,” he says. Blue Oak BBQ now has an exclusive contract with Koehl to produce mango freeze; it will be the only restaurant in the city offering the treat.
On a larger scale, the Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts company, which includes a growing portfolio of more than 20 restaurants and daquiri bars, offered a September promo called Keep the Beat with Festival Eats, with six of the company’s restaurants—Broussard’s Restaurant & Courtyard, Tommy’s Cuisine, Café Maspero, Royal House, Ernst Café, and Flamingo A-Go-Go—offering a festival-inspired menu item such as Gulf fish beignets, crab cake sliders, and jerk chicken tacos. For each dish sold, the company is donating $1 to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundations’ Music Relief Fund, with the local Port Orleans Brewing Co. matching funds—all money will provide immediate critical assistance to members of the Louisiana music and cultural community impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sharing the love of food and music is a kind of love that never goes away. It’s what the world needs now, to quote Tank and the Banga’s hit remake of the Jackie DeShannon 1965 single. “It’s so beautiful, to hear artists like Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Fats Domino, who aren’t with us anymore,” says Arroyo Utterback.
Up next, the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival set for October 16-18, 2020. For the first time, it will feature video along with audio. According to Arroyo Utterback: “It’s like music therapy: It makes things a little easier to bear and feeds the soul.”