Vieux To Do is 3 festivals in one, the Creole Tomato Festival, the Cajun-Zydeco Music Festival and the Louisiana Seafood Festival. The Creole Tomato Festival is an over 20 year tradition showcasing the French Market, our country’s oldest city marketplace (1791). In addition to the super-tasty locally grown tomatoes, there are stages with live music, an air conditioned enclosed tent for cooking demonstrations and a parade I apparently missed. The Sliced Creole Tomatoes with Lump Crabmeat and Remoulade Sauce from George’s Farmer’s Market was simple and outstanding.
Our tomatoes really are better. I recently read that it’s due to our sunshine. Maybe it’s the water. Who knows? What I do know is that when I was a child, my Maw Maw or Paw Paw would pinch a big, fat tomato from the patch behind their house in Houma. They would slice it and sprinkle a tiny bit of salt to bring out the flavor. Those tomatoes explained why you’d name a tomato, “Beefsteak.” They were hearty and filling and savory and still warm from the sun. Unforgettable. Tomatoes that good were everywhere at the festival.
The Cajun-Zydeco Music Festival and the Louisiana Seafood Festival are both held at the Old U.S. Mint. There are over 20 bands playing 2 stages, all courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. One of the stages sat behind the Mint shutting down Esplanade and turning it into a block party. Dozens of people, mostly couples, danced in front of the stage while chairs filled in under shade trees. I’m loving the giant industrial fans that spew an icy cold fine mist. They sat conveniently near every dance “floor” and at spots between. Helped keep the heat at bay.
The Seafood festival celebrates the state of Louisiana as the largest harvesters of seafood in the States. The food booths offered many selections of favorites from Gumbos to Po-Boys. We first sampled the Shrimp and Corn Cheese Grits from Brocato’s Eat Dat ($7). With kernels of corn and tasty sauce, it set the bar very high for the rest of the day’s eats. But, we kept eating. Crab Cake Salad with Remoulade ($5) from Saltwater Grill, Catfish Po-Boy from Ninja Restaurant ($7) and Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding from Taste and See Catering ($5). And yes, the donut bread pudding was as decadent as it sounds.
Day 2 of the Fest, we ate a much talked about Shrimp Remoulade Stuffed Tomato from Bywater BBQ ($7) and an outstanding Heirloom Tomato Salad from Covey Rise Farms ($7) and finished our feast with a repeat helping of Brocato’s Eat Dat’s Shrimp and Corn Cheese Grits. As many locals say – wish we could eat fest food everyday.
The festival also boasts many arts and crafts booths with beautiful locally made items ranging from paintings and decorative items to jewelry and clothing. Though most of the attendees were local to the state, I imagine tourists who come for Jazz Fest and the like would love this smaller collection of musical events, artists and food items surrounding the French Market area.
Sunday, Congo Square reopened to host a drum circle sponsored by Positive Vibrations Foundation and Luther Gray’s Congo Square Foundation.
Congo Square is currently located in the embattled Louis Armstrong Park in the Treme but started as a gathering place for slaves enjoying their Sunday off by singing, dancing and drumming during the French and Spanish colonial era. The drumming continued after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and American tourists began visiting the Square to watch the African traditions, since the music was “suppressed” throughout much of the United States. As the harsher American slavery practices overtook the more lax French attitude, attendance at Congo Square waned, finally stopping at least a decade before the Civil War.
In the late 1800’s, Creole brass bands began playing in the Square and the tradition continued and evolved until urban renewal in the 1960’s demolished the surrounding neighborhood, full of the history of Jazz, to build Louis Armstrong Park. In 1970, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest) began an annual concert on the Square, eventually moving it to it’s home at the Fairgrounds.
I’d longed to go there and see if I could feel the energy of hundreds of years of drums playing thousands of years of beats. I felt outside at first, an observer of some kids mimicking a tradition. But then I spotted Seguenon Kone of Ensemble Fatien, he of the “Tasmanian Devil” spinning while playing a giant wooden xylophone-type instrument. Having seen him drum many, many times, I felt optimistic and even a bit connected. Then I saw the sly and regal face of Big Chief Alfred Doucette and felt assured the ancient beat, the beat of all of our African roots, was here in this spot if I let myself feel it.
When the beats took shape into a ten minute version of Li’l Liza Jane, I felt myself relax. Yes, the band was littered with young people still new to their instruments, but they were all doing what I was doing, trying to plug into the rhythm of life. When I finally felt it, the connection lasted only for a moment. It was like when I visited Jerusalem and felt very strongly, “Something happened here,” it was clear that Congo Square is a birthplace. The traditions of Mardi Gras Indians and second line are said to have come from the Square and, of course, it is considered the birthplace of Jazz.
I’m glad I went and look forward to the Park being reopened so that we can all enjoy the traditions again in the area where they started. Afterward, we crossed Rampart and found a new restaurant open, Golden Feather Mardi Gras Indian Restaurant Gallery, the restaurant I’d heard about at the French Quarter Fest. Turns out, they had hosted a lunch for Positive Vibrations before the drum circle. Golden Feather’s menu boasts traditional New Orleans fare as well as a barbecue tofu dish called the Let’s Go Get ‘Em after the Mardi Gras Indian chant. Nothing on the menu is over $10.99 and I’m anxious to try much of it on a non-fest weekend. And, to my absolute delight, the restaurant is decorated with several full Mardi Gras Indian suits. To see them up close and standing still…Wow.
A parade passed, as often happens, and pretty girls in fluffy white dresses threw us carnations to celebrate the Greater New Orleans Floral Trail. Two carriages of sashed queens wearing elaborate crowns, one with a rhinestone encrusted crawfish climbing what might have been an oil rig, closed out the show.
After returning to the fest for an early supper, we decided to check in with our neighboring Meltdown Popsicles for gourmet, handmade from fresh ingredients, frozen confections on a stick. The Watermelon Mint had green flecks of mint leaf frozen into the fresh juice. The Salted Caramel was as good as I remembered it, maybe better. A perfect ending to yet another great weekend in the Big Easy.