By Anna Shults
My first year at Jazz Fest was 2009. I was 18 and recently had become involved with an organization at Tulane that volunteered every year selling food to raise money for charity. However, when the opportunity was explained to me, the only words I heard were “free admission” and “unlimited pasta.” We met on campus around 8 a.m. and drove to the grounds, parking in the grassy lots reserved for the event staff. Near the entrance, people were already sitting outside in folding chairs drinking their breakfast beers. We circumvented the line and made it to the grounds while the opening acts were setting up.
We were volunteering at the Crawfish Monica booth. Immediately upon arrival, we were presented with oversized t-shirts and baseball caps with a cartoon crawfish laying on its side in a bikini on them. The owners gave us a quick run-down on what we were expected to do, stressing that, against all of our customer service impulses, the priority was not on being nice to people. It was getting the line moving fast.
Only about eight people could work at one time, so there was always a surplus of workers. I sat out the first hour, sitting on some coolers behind the tent, trying the pasta for breakfast. It was rich and garlicky, and I ate it quickly with a lukewarm Coke. The grounds were just starting to open, and people were perusing the booths, assessing which ones they would patronize later. They had a lot of delicious options to choose from, a few of which I tried later that day. It was the first time I’d ever had fried oysters, and I’ve never looked back. Jazz Fest is one of the best ways to sample the best of New Orleans cuisine. Concertgoers do not accept mediocrity or inauthenticity. Even the sushi has a Cajun flair.
I started my shift around 11. My job was ladling the crawfish pasta into Styrofoam bowls. It started slow, so my bowls were clean and picturesque with a perfect sheen of sauce. However, as the lunch crowd started to hit, I became more haphazard. The sauce fell over the sides of the bowl onto my hands, burning them through my plastic gloves. It starting getting hot in the tent, and I could feel the wetness of my recently washed hair mixing with sweat under my baseball cap.
At my next break, I had another bowl of pasta. I was ravenous and covered it with Crystal without thinking of the heat implications. My face reddened immediately and another volunteer laughed. “Too much? It’s your first year. You can’t handle the heat yet.” A seasoned veteran of Jazz Fest, she took me around to all of the booths she knew would trade food with us. She was my culinary guide to all things Cajun, including boudin balls, of which I had been skeptical to that point.
I worked the register for my second shift, which was more hectic than preparing the food, but a little less dangerous. It was approaching mid-afternoon, so the crowds were getting drunk and hungry. The tips increased, with a shirtless man giving me five dollars and kissing my hand because, “we were all such beautiful girls to be feeding him this way.”
The next time I stepped away from the booth, I finally made it to one of the stages. Kings of Leon was playing. I stood near one of the fences to the side, feeling particularly dorky in my crawfish hat among the hipster fedoras. I meandered back to the tent, and the crowd was thinning, making their way to the big stages for the closing acts. There were a few stragglers, mostly people making their way out of the park who wanted to get dinner before they left. The crowd had reddened, both with heat and a regrettable lack of sunscreen. I peeled back my sleeve and saw the beginning of a farmer’s tan emerging. We started closing up shop and were released as the sun hinted at going down. I ate my final bowl of Crawfish Monica sitting in the red dirt listening to the opening chords of “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
New Orleans is a city that thrives on decadence. As a short-time resident of New Orleans and novice of Jazz Fest, I felt the atmosphere in a way I haven’t in my subsequent Fest days since. We go for the music, of course, but it’s more than that. There is a sense of camaraderie, a bond over taking a day out of life to eat, drink, and be languorous just as the city starts to heat up for summer. This year’s line up included some of my favorite artists, and I spent plenty of time as a spectator, as well as one day asking, “What’re you havin’?”
I even am learning to handle the heat.