Think of this not so much a "eating cheap" guide as a "being able to pay bills after Jazz Fest" guide. You're going to spend money?it's inevitable, like Global Warming or somebody requesting "Walking in Memphis" at Pat O'Brien's Piano Bar. The sooner you come to terms with the legal tender you will hemorrhage during Jazz Fest, the sooner you'll be able to stymie the flow.
Before you even enter the gate, you should pause and take a deep, fortifying breath. Close your eyes. Center yourself somehow, probably by breathing regularly (don't hold your breath because you will need all the blood cells you can get your stupid little fingers on). Now, imagine that you are a tiger. A hungry, thirsty tiger, prowling through a jungle of overpriced festival food and stoned baby boomers giddy for Brian Wilson. Imagining that you are a tiger will only make this entire experience easier because who is going to overcharge a hungry, thirsty tiger for food and drink? A crazy person, that's who, someone who routinely plays roulette with his or her life. No food vendor tries to overcharge a a hungry, thirsty tiger for delicious festival food because tigers have claws and will just forcibly take that crawfish strudel with a side of human flesh. That's right, this little mental exercise just got real. Open your eyes. You are the tiger. You have carrion breath. You have claws. Flex your claws. (Casually make sure that no one is watching you as you do this). You are finally ready to enter the festival.
Actually, not quite yet?the next thing you really ought to do before heading through the gates is make sure you brought a friend with you, a friend with whom to share some platters with. Eating for two (or three, if you're into that sort of thing and it's totally cool if you are because this is a judgment-free zone) makes economic sense because you'll get to try a little more variety by splitting a number of items from any given eatery rather than just shoveling a soft shell crab po' boy down your gullet and staggering from stage to stage with stomach cramps. If you don't have a friend because you a) smell bad and no one wants to hang out with you (even tigers need baths sometimes) or b) suffer from crippling hypochondria and can't bear the thought of someone else's canker-riddled mouth slobbering all over your cochon de lait, it won't be hard to find someone inside with whom to go splitsies on some delicious food because probably eighty percent of everyone at the festival is stoned and, therefore, ravenous.
A few general rules that you and your friend/stoned stranger who keeps asking when the Allman Brothers are going to play should observe while meandering around Congo Square:
· Don't spend $6 on a can of Fosters unless you are susceptible to commodified Australian culture and cannot help yourself.
· Don't hydrate with vodka.
· Make sure the flask of vodka you tucked into the crotch of your pants and snuck through security doesn't fall down your pant leg and humiliate you.
· Respect your cravings, but, especially if you're local, don't spend a bunch of money on anything that you can just as easily get any other time of the year
Your first stop might be to procure a delicious beverage. You did tuck a flask of your favorite booze into the crotch of your unmentionables and snuck it through security, didn't you?
· Iced coffee or frozen coffee (Food Area II/New Orleans Coffee Company & Heritage Square/Cafe du Monde) + booze
· Rosemint or Mandarin Orange Iced Tea (Food Area I, II & Heritage Square/Sunshine Concessions) + booze
· Strawberry Lemonade (Congo Square/Cafe Reconcile) + booze
· Snowball flavor of your choice (everywhere, they're like anthills) + booze
No illicit booze? Are you a cop or something? Head for the good draft beer near the Grandstand, and stay away from the cans of light beer and the overpriced daqs, which are certainly made of tiger poison.
Now that you're on your way to getting wasted, you and your companion should meander over to Congo Square to split the selection from Bennachin, which includes poulet fricassee, jama-jama and plantains, all of which are unassailably delicious. If you're alone with your smelly, hypochondriac tiger self, wander over to Food Area II and try:
· Crawfish Strudel ($6 spent here is a much better buy than the same $6 spent on a little bowl of pasta) (Cottage Catering)
· Pheasant, Quail and Andouille gumbo or crawfish enchiladas (Prejean's Restaurant)
Food Area I should come second to Food Area II. It's weird, but you're a tiger, remember? You have no concept of an abstract numerical system. If your companion hasn't wandered off somewhere on a quixotic quest to drop what is said to be acid but what is actually notebook paper an enterprising teenager has cleverly cut into thin rectangular strips, then patch together a platter from one of these spots:
· Seafood au gratin, spinach and artichoke casserole, sweet potato pone (Ten Talents Catering)
· Stuffed crab, catfish almondine, potato salad (Stuf Hapn Event Catering)
· Crawfish sack, crawfish beignets, oyster pattie (Patton's Caterers)
If you're hankering for bread with stuff in the middle, skip the usual fried oyster, shrimp, or soft-shell crab options?you can get those whenever. Instead try maybe the:
· Cochon de lait po' boy (Love at First Bite)
· Cajun duck po' boy (Troncoso)
· Crawfish bread (Panorama Foods)
Crawfish bread, incidentally, is the single most beautifully portable food you'll find at the Fairgrounds, so stick a few of these delightful tinfoil packets in your purse or pants (that flask will hopefully be long gone) during the last set. One other thing to remember: there are two kinds of patrons at Jazz Fest, the industrious ants and the insouciant grasshoppers. (Yeah, we're mixing our metaphors, but deal with it and live your life.) The ants sample some delicious food, enough delicious food to get good and drunk without suffering stomach pains. The grasshoppers eat and drink everything they can get their spiny hands on and then pass out somewhere between the Fairgrounds and the French restaurant a friend recommended to them. Then they're eaten by sewer alligators. Be the ant and avoid dying from exposure/alligators by taking some leftovers home or back to your hotel or to your host friend's home?you'll be happy later when you can have some crawfish bread for breakfast.