Crawfish Monica and Other Jazz Fest Wonders

by Amanda Raborn on April 16, 2013

in Arts & Culture, Events, Food, GoNOLA Radio, Music, Things To Do

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If you’ve been to Jazz Fest, I’m certain you’ve eaten Crawfish Monica and then immediately wanted to meet the angel who created this simple yet delicious dish. Well, now is your chance. On this episode of GoNOLA Radio, our hosts speak with Pierre Hilzim and Monica Davidson, the President and Vice President of Kajun Kettle Foods, Inc. to discuss their 30th anniversary of serving their food at Jazz Fest as well as their delicious signature dish and its origins.

GoNOLA RadioHear some of Monica and Pierre’s special Jazz Fest anecdotes from hearing Bruce Springsteen’s extended sound check to serving Crawfish Monica to Paul Prudhomme all before even getting to the unique cultural experience Jazz Fest offers. Whether you’re browsing the art marketplaces or observing the Mardi Gras Indians, this festival lets the world in on sacred New Orleans culture. And of course, you’ll hear about the fantastic local artists as well as headliners that everyone will love!

So sit back, turn up your speakers and get in the Jazz Fest spirit with this episode of GoNOLA Radio! Find the unparalleled Crawfish Monica at Jazz Fest in Food Area II.

GoNOLA Radio is a free New Orleans podcast hosted by Sunpie Barnes, Lorin Gaudin, George Ingmire and Mikko about the food, music and culture of the Crescent City. Subscribe to GoNOLA Radio on iTunes or download to your mobile device on Stitcher. GoNOLA Radio features music by Cale Pellick.

Podcast Transcript

Sanpa Barnes: Welcome to Go NOLA Radio. My name is Sanpa Barnes, and I will
be your host of hosts, as we explore New Orleans to learn about the city’s
rich cultural heritage, food, and music. We bring you experts, the real-
deal experts, who will talk with you about the people who make New Orleans
such a wonderful place to live and visit. It’s Go NOLA Radio.

Lauren Goden: Hi, welcome to Go NOLA Radio. I’m Lauren Goden, New Orleans
food goddess and I’m joined each podcast by the fabulous George Ingmire.

George: Hello.

Lauren: And the equally fabulous Miko.

Miko: Yes, I am.

Lauren: Yes, you are.

Miko: Hi.

Lauren: We are going to be covering, on this particular episode Jazz Fest;
all the elements of it; the cultural, the craft, the music, and of course
the food of Jazz Fest. We have a special guest in studio with us today,
Monica and Pete. Now I’m not saying any last names, because if you don’t
know what foodstuff has the word Monica in it, it must be your first time
at Jazz Fest. That is A-OK, because we’re going to be talking Crawfish
Monica. Welcome to the show.

Monica: Thank you.

Pete: Thank you.

Lauren: We talk about food at Jazz Fest and of course, there are certain
foods that are iconic. There are just dishes that everyone goes out and
eats. Particularly, I think of Jama-Jama, you know that spinach that’s
beautiful, that’s of course from one of our favorite African restaurants of
the French Quarter, Bennachin.

Lauren: You think of this year, a lady who has really kicked it into gear
is Linda Green and her Yakemein and she’s got a booth. Yakemein, for those
who don’t know, is basically beef soup with spaghetti and beef shards, and
green onions and yummy spices and it’s just heavenly, and it’s got a little
local folklore attached to it. I think that guys, and correct me if I’m
wrong that the most iconic food that one can eat at Jazz Fest has to be
Crawfish Monica.

George: Yes, absolutely. There is no doubt.

Lauren: I think so, too. So Crawfish Monica for those who don’t know,
Monica and Pete will you share what is Crawfish Monica?

Pete: Crawfish Monica is crawfish tails, in a spiced cream reduction sauce,
tossed with pasta.

Lauren: It doesn’t get more simple and beautiful than that. How Monica, did
it come to be named for you?

Monica: My wonderful husband Pierre, who’s sitting to my left, when I first
met him he was cooking dinner for a huge houseful of people, and that’s
what he was doing the night that he developed Crawfish Monica. He was
cooking for a group of people, at a beautiful house uptown, and I walked
into the kitchen and I said, “Wow that smells great. What are you cooking?”
You know I tried some and it was just fabulous. He said, “Well, I think I’m
going to call it Crawfish Monica.”

Monica: I said, “Well, it’s fantastic.” At that point, we were doing a
fresh pasta line that Pierre developed, and he threw this dish together
with crawfish and cream sauce, and some secret spices and all the other
additives, and I was just blown away by it. We started doing it at
festivals. We were doing only pasta at the time, we started doing the sauce
at festivals and food shows, and people went crazy over it. So we thought
we might as well start producing sauces as well as pastas, because that’s
the logical accompaniment and this just took off like crazy.

Pete: We manufacture food for a living. That’s what we do all year long.

Lauren: Please say the name of your company.

Pete: It’s called Kajun Kettle Foods. We have the privilege to make food
for a lot of restaurant groups, grocery stores and we make about 160
different products. Crawfish Monica is one of them. It’s a great product,
but it’s one of them, so we make a lot of different stuff.

Lauren: And for you guys, you said that this is a magical year. This is how
many years have you been at Jazz Fest?

Monica: This is our 30th year at the fest with Crawfish Monica.

Lauren: With Crawfish Monica.

Monica: Yes, because our first year was in 1983 with another dish. They
wouldn’t let us do pasta that year, so what did we do, Pete?

Pete: We did Deviled Shrimp and Eggplant Dressing.

Lauren: Wow.

Monica: That was really, really good, but it wasn’t Crawfish Monica.

Lauren: I bet it was. Thirty years of Crawfish Monica. Do you have any idea
how much Crawfish Monica you have pushed out of your booth in Food Area #2,
for those who are interested? Do you have any idea how much Crawfish Monica
has gone out the door in 30 years?

Pete: I would give it a rough guess, around a million bowls.

George: A million bowls

Lauren: I think I’m responsible for 500,000.

Miko: It’s going to be Crawfish Monica Lauren.

Lauren: No, never.

Miko: You know I have to say, and I think you may talk about this in a
moment. You have the kits of it. And when you leave New Orleans, this
Christmas I went up north to my brother’s house in New Hampshire and it’s
very hard to export New Orleans. Like what are you going to do bring a
parade or have Kermit Ruffin’s come with you and play a song?

Lauren: That would be nice.

Miko: Yeah, so I always bring coffee and I try to pick out like Zapp’s
Potato Chips with the Saints logo on it, but this year I brought the kit up
there. It was great, because it was all these New Hampshire folks and only
one had ever been to New Orleans and had been to Jazz Fest.
So I brought the dish out and it cooked up great. It wasn’t as fun as
eating out of the bowl in the 90-degree sun with the music playing, but the
snow was coming down. The one person who had been to New Orleans had given
me this look like he had just seen his first crush from high school and she
still looked beautiful, you know? That was a great. It was a great sort of
iconic like you said. You guys have moved it to be an actual symbol of this
city to where it’s now recognizable or something.

George: I’m curious about your early years with it. I understand you had
kind of a moment there where Paul Prudhomme showed up with a news crew.

Pete: That was our very first year and we were doing the shrimp dish and I
had no clue what was going to happen, no clue what to do. Jazz Fest was a
lot smaller then, thank God, but we got started and it was time for the
show to open, and I looked up. I had a crawfish boiler burner which is
really hot and a skillet. If you’ve ever tried to cook like that, it cooks
things very quickly. I mean you don’t blink. I look up and there’s Paul
coming who’s this wonderful, wonderful guy and he’s bringing with him the
camera crew and Bryant Gumbel, from Today Show.

Lauren: Holy smoke.

Pete: It was like, “Oh, please, not now.” And so we kind of just rolled
through it and it was really a very interesting way to start Jazz Fest.

George: He kind of kidded you though, didn’t he? He was playing with you,
because you guys have a good relationship.

Pete: Paul’s been a great friend, since we started. He started laughing. He
says, “Is that burner hot enough?” We could blacken on it, it was that bad.
So it was fun.

Lauren: Unbelievable. Do you ever have people at Jazz Fest try to ask you
for the secret?

Pete: Oh, yeah, all day.

Monica: Oh, all the time.

Lauren: What do you tell them?

George: Buy the package.

Pete: Just say no.

Monica: Well, they come up-actually they’ve gotten very clever. One young
man kept coming back over and over again. He’d say, “Okay, I’m allergic to
cheese. Is there cheese in that dish? I have to find out if I can eat it.”
I’d say, “I can’t tell you.” Then he’d say, “I’m allergic to parsley. Is
there parsley in that dish?”

Lauren: So he’s running down the whole thing.

Monica: I’m sure his dad was back there, so his dad was a chef. His dad was
back there going, “Okay, now ask her this.”

Lauren: That’s hilarious.

Miko: I’m allergic to fennel.

Monica: So sure, yeah. We don’t give the recipe out.

George: Before the actual Festival opens in the morning, before the gates
open, you guys are already there. Do you have any stories about like sound
checks with the live music?

Pete: I get there first and the track is wonderful at 7:00-7:30 in the
morning. There are birds everywhere feeding on what’s left over from the
day before. It’s quiet, it’s truly beautiful, and we get to work getting
things organized. We hear some noise. We hear music coming up and go over
to the Acura stage. One year Bruce Springsteen decided to do a sound check,
this was right after Katrina, he played two-thirds of his set for us.

Pete: He kept asking, “Why are you here?” We said, “We work. This is our
only chance to see you.” He said, “Okay.” He played through. He played for
about 45 minutes to an hour. But we’ve heard a great number of people do
their sound check back there and it’s a wonderful way to start the day.

George: Let’s hope that Billy Joel or Fleetwood Mack or The Black Keys are
as generous this year, because there are some really amazing headliners
this year. Along with the local bands which it always has to come back to
the local scene. We’ve got our tried and true favorites. The Neville
Brothers won’t be playing, as a family but Art, Cyril and Charles will be
playing and then Aaron will be playing on his own. This’ll be the first
time they don’t close the Sunday Jazz Fest, but there are always people.
You’re going to hear Erma Thomas. You’re going to hear people like, Allen
Toussaint, who’s always, I mean come on.

Pete: This is Allen’s 75th birthday this year.

Lauren: If you’re not in your booth eating Crawfish Monica Pete, what are
you eating?

Pete: Well, if I haven’t finished my first Stuffed Bread from next door to
me from Merline, I’m headed over for Vietnamese food.

Lauren: And that’s over the Grandstand.

Pete: I have to have pulled pork. I mean that’s a prescription. Stuffed
Bread, Crawfish Bread, there’s 58 people out there doing awesome stuff.
Wayne Baquet

Lauren: I know I was going to say. You don’t do the Trout Baquet? I do it.

Pete: His food’s fabulous. There’s just so much out there. So much food,
so little time is the problem.

Lauren: And so little stomach space. Monica, what about you? What is your
must-have?

Monica: The Cochon de Lait, as Po-Boy.

Miko: Amen, that’s what I think, too.

Monica: That’s just unbelievable, and then Patton’s does those incredible
Crawfish Sacks that I love.

Lauren: That’s Food Area #1.

Monica: Then Mango Freeze is fabulous.

Lauren: Mango Freeze, you can find in different places all across the Jazz
Fest site, so they have them positioned all over, so you can’t miss it.

Monica: It’s so good every year, and it’s not too sweet. It’s just perfect.

Lauren: It is perfect.

Monica: The rose mint tea.

Lauren: Ah, my favorite.

Monica: Incredibly refreshing.

Lauren: Again, another booth that’s positioned all over the Fest site.

Monica: They sweeten it with honey, so again, it’s not too sweet. Then the
Vietnamese food is fantastic. I mean you know how lucky are we that we have
this huge assortment, what are there 60 food vendors at this place with
fabulous music, incredible crafts, and the food. I mean I just think it’s
just like, the Holy Trinity almost.

Lauren: The Holy Trinity of New Orleans experience, yeah?

Monica: Yeah, exactly. I’m sorry if I sound sacrilegious here, but
really…

Lauren: Hardly

Monica: It’s the most thing, experience overall. We’ve been to other
festivals and there’s just no comparison.

Pete: Culturally we have the Congo Marketplace there at the Jazz Fest. It’s
all the African stuff. It’s the intensive, pure African strain that you can
go experience, while you’re experiencing New Orleans music. They also have
the Native American village. And again, you get their culture, but you also
get the crafts. You get the way they did it. The Louisiana folk life I
think is a really special thing, because it’s easy to come to New Orleans
as a first timer and expect a Disney-type experience. And you’re like, “Oh,
my God. Look at this guy, carving his own duck decoy or making his own
pirogue.”

Lauren: Or the whole Min Nation, doing their fry bread or their Maque
Choux. Sorry, food thing again.

Pete: No, but of course, they’re making it the way that they’ve made it for
centuries and you get to experience that. How do I explain it? You could go
to college I suppose and get a degree in the history of New Orleans or you
can go to Jazz Fest, and see it firsthand while you are eating your Cochon
De Lait Po-Boy and listening to Bruce Springsteen, you know? You could see
the Mardi Gras Indians actually sewing there on the site. I think Black
Feather is the group that will be performing there and a few others, a lot
more.

Pete: The Art Markets.

Miko: These are the crafts that local artists that have to get into the
festival the same way that the-and they have some national people. It’s
just like the music, you know you have some real movers and shakers on the
national scene, but you know Gina Phillips, a good friend of mine. A great
local artist here who’s starting to make a mark internationally, she goes
out there with her fabric things. We were talking about our good friend
Frenchie earlier, who goes on and paints in situ, as they say. These are
local people experiencing their muse in a way that we can watch and
experience.

George: They do such a wonderful job pulling all of these elements
together. There’s something for everyone inside those gates, musically,
culinary-wise, cultural-wise, and once you’re worn out from the first
weekend of Jazz Fest, too bad. Monday night you’ve got to come out to The
House of Blues and go to Piano Night, which is put on by WWOZ, the radio
station.

George: You can go to www.wwoz.org and find out all the different piano
players and then Tuesday you can take a little breather. Wednesday you’ve
got Chaz Fest which is C-H-A-Z Festival, a neighborhood festival. You can
go to their website and a lot of local acts. Then Thursday it starts again,
so literally in the course of all those days… Tuesday, there’s Live in
Record Studio at the Louisiana Music Factory. They have live performances
there that whole time too, so technically, you don’t get to sleep here. You
don’t come here to sleep.

Monica: Well, some very good friends of ours own a restaurant here, also
opened up a restaurant in Texas at Austin. They were back visiting and I
asked her what the experience in Austin was. She says, “I love Austin. It’s
a really cool city. It’s just fabulous and we’ve got South by Southwest and
that’s really fun.” But she says, “It’s just not New Orleans. It’s just not
Jazz Fest.”

I said, “What is it about Jazz Fest that you love so much?” She goes, “The
roots here are so deep. They are deep. They go back so far. It’s real. It’s
not something you can manufacture. It’s not something you can make up. It’s
the real, real thing.” You really get that feeling when you experience any
of these events. You know that there is something that is beyond you,
beyond your experience and it goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.
That’s so amazingly special and wonderful.

Lauren: And so New Orleans. We want to thank both Monica and Pierre/Pete
Hilzim.

Monica: Thank you so much for having us.

Pete: Thank you.

Lauren: Crawfish Monica, I will be having my several bowls, and I know you
guys will.

Miko: Working on your next chameleon.

Lauren: Thanks, Miko. Thanks, George.

George: Absolutely.

Lauren: And you’re listening to Go NOLA Radio and it’s all about Jazz Fest.

Sanpa: Go NOLA Radio is a production of New Orleans Tourism and Marketing
Corporation, in conjunction with FFC Interactive, music by Kale Pellet. My
name is Sanpa. Tune in next week by subscribing to Go NOLA Radio on iTunes
or gonola.com.

 

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