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When It Rains It Pours

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Louisiana is awash in festivals all month long

nol_apr08_final_medres_page_43_image_0005.jpgApril showers us with a bounty of food festivals from all over Louisiana: strawberries in Ponchatoula, catfish in Winnsboro and the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans, to name a few. Culture and cuisine meet in Chalmette for the Los Isleños Fiesta, and the third week of April brings Passover, an important Jewish holiday with special foods at its core. This month we are again awash with festivals celebrating our heritage, our culture, our music and, of course, stunning food.

Los Isleños Fiesta commences the weekend of April 5. Celebrating the Canary Islanders who settled in St. Bernard in 1778, this festival brings dancers and dignitaries from the Spanish islands. Along with folkloric dance performances, this is the festival for slurping a slew of grilled oysters and sampling traditional fare that reveals the broad cultural mix of the area and the love of freshly cultivated vegetables with a bit of meat. Dig into stuffed artichokes, smothered turnips, jambalaya, rice custard, crab casserole with squash, along with Caldo, a soup of white beans, pickled pork and vegetables like corn, red potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and more.

Winnsboro honors pond-raised catfish at its festival on April 12. The amount of crispy fried catfish and other catfish dishes is staggering. This year the festival will also have a catch-andrelease fishing tank for children, and the Travelin’ Fish Tank, a 12-foot-tall, 40-foot-long glass mobile aquarium stocked with fish.

It goes without saying that all things strawberry are devoured at the Strawberry Festival (April 11–13), from strawberry jams, jellies, muffins and pies to Abita Strawberry Lager. On the savory side, gumbo, onion mums and fried alligator are also big winners.

At sundown on April 19, Passover commences. The foods of Passover, celebrating the liberation of Jews from slavery, must be “kosher for Passover,” with no leavening agents. The Seder meal, a replication of the Last Supper, includes among many things, quenelles of whitefish (fish balls) called gefilte fish, eaten with beet-colored grated horseradish; bowls of clear matzo ball soup; a paste of apples and nuts sweetened with kosher wine called haroset; and the primary symbol of the holiday, matzo. The flat, unleavened bread, which recalls the rushed-baked bread Israelites ate after their hasty departure from Egypt, is made from either wheat, barley, spelt, oats or rye. Making matzo is fairly simple—flour and water only, allowed to rise for no more than 18 to 22 minutes before being baked. Cake Café & Bakery is freshly baking matzo, but it is not kosher for Passover, just delicious. With kosher for Passover matzo available at groceries all over New Orleans, I make a mean bittersweet and crackly chocolate-covered matzo, but my hands-down favorite Passover sweet is sticky coconut macaroons. How the cookies became a part of the Passover observance is unknown, but they hold a starring role at many Seder tables, especially mine.

Finally, winding up the month the weekend of April 25 is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Most everyone knows that some of the best eats in New Orleans are found here. Some of the top foods include, but are not limited to, crawfish sacks, mango freeze, cochon de lait or softshell crab po’boys, spiced jama-jama, ribs, beans, Cuban sandwiches, Vietnamese noodle bowls and summer rolls, brothy and bold yaka mein, and Hucklebuck (or Huckabuck)—small paper cups of fruit cocktail with frozen Kool-Aid or syrup-flavored water. In other words, start the diet now.