Festivals Ripe with Seafood & Tomatoes

New Orleans, La. –
Louisiana food festivals are often pegged to their calendar dates for good reasons, like seasonal freshness or cultural tradition. This weekend, a unique collection of festivals happening together in New Orleans show the importance of such timing, each for its own reason.

On Saturday and Sunday, there's the Louisiana Seafood Festival, held at the Old U.S. Mint museum and hosted by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. On the same grounds around the historic Mint building, the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival is hosted by the same foundation that puts on Jazz Fest. And right around the corner, the French Market hosts the Creole Tomato Festival all at the same time.

Though they are separate events, the three festivals are so close together that, for all practical purposes, they have melded into one event. Promoters now even refer to them collectively as the Vieux to Do, as in Vieux Carre, the old name for the French Quarter where they're held. Admission to all of them is free.

The Louisiana Seafood Festival has been around for a few years now. But with the greater attention to the economic and cultural value of the local seafood harvest, and the threat it faces from the BP oil spill, locals are in eat-it-while-you-can mode. Restaurant vendors will serve shrimp, alligator, crab, crawfish, catfish and oysters, treating them to preparations that range from traditional Creole to fusion creations. This will be a great opportunity get your fill of great local seafood and show your solidarity with a business sector and cultural resource now under siege by an industrial disaster.

The distinctive sounds of south Louisiana music will set the rhythm of the festival days, courtesy of performers on the two stages of the Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival.

Naturally, vendors at the Creole Tomato Festival in the adjacent French Market are focused on the festival's namesake produce. The term Creole tomato once referred to a specially cultivated variety of the plant, one bred by LSU horticulturist in the 1950s. That's no longer the case, however. Today, the term Creole tomato signifies any tomato grown locally in the alluvial soils of southeast Louisiana. But don't dismiss it as mere marketing lingo.

The tag Creole tomato is a promise of local freshness, indicating a tomato grown close to where you're likely to buy it and eat it here. Since they didn't have to travel very far, Creole tomatoes can ripen on the vine longer, producing a more succulent tomato. It also didn't spend any time in a refrigerated truck getting here from distant fields, or languishing in chilled storage, and refrigeration is one of the surest ways to stanch a tomato's flavor and alter its delicate interior texture.

For many, eating a big, bright-red Creole tomato from hand like a juice-splattering apple -- or slicing it thick for a simple Creole tomato sandwich -- is one of the salvations of our hot summers. At the Creole Tomato Festival, expect some slightly more elaborate presentations from restaurant vendors that still keep the sweet, mouth-filling flavor front and center.

The Creole tomato is just entering its brief, hot season of perfection right now. Meanwhile, for those who love Louisiana seafood or simply treasure the culture it represents, this is a time to appreciate what we have and support those who supply it. In both cases, the French Quarter and its Vieux to Do is the right place and this weekend is the right time.

The festivals are held at the Old U.S. Mint (400 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans) and the French Market (1008 N. Peters St.) and open from 11a.m. to 7 p.m. on June 12 and June 13. Festival entrance is free of charge.