Choosing good eats at the Monterey Jazz Festival can compliment the notes just right.
Thursday, September 29, 2005
At the 48th Monterey Jazz Festival two weeks ago, my first meal was a Louisiana crab cake with dirty rice from the New Orleans Cookery booth. I ate in a gesture of homage to that suffering region, and with a desire to fill my belly with some of its tradition.
Not long after I sat down with my food, a man sitting nearby leaned over and asked what I was eating. It wouldn’t be the last time this happened. With so much going on, a dizzying abundance of music to hear and food to eat, there can be felt moving through the crowds a flutter of anxiety before so much extravagant bounty: What if it turns out I’ve missed out on something special?
The man leaning towards my food was smoking, but I didn’t care, for his resemblance to the late great trumpeter Chet Baker was astonishing. With the man’s square, once-handsome face burdened by deep-cut wrinkles, and his coughing breath heavy with living, I felt I was in the presence of a jazz-ghost. Even his eyes, watery, black and immense, recalled Baker’s haunting stare. I told him the food was good. He nodded and went back to his hand-rolled cigarette. It was good, the crab cake more like a piece of warm cornbread generously stuffed with crabmeat, perfect for sopping up the dirty rice sauce. And dirty, in this case, meant true spicy complexity: white and black and red pepper were only the beginning. The spectral encounter, the food, even the plastic cup of Jekel Riesling, made an ideal accompaniment to spicy food. Now I was ready for the music.
This was my sixth consecutive Festival, and I’ve come to understand that no matter where you are—no matter what you hear, or eat, or drink—it will all be good. No, better than good: It will be grand. To enjoy this annual event as a local is something to put on your list of Reasons for True Happiness.
Not that I don’t have my concerns. It’s great that there’s so much diversity amidst the food vendors, but this year proved traumatic for those who depend on a steady source of barbecued meat with their jazz. The barbecue icon Smokin’ Jim’s was gone, moved, I was told, to Arizona. In his place we had the dependable Emanuel’s, whose ‘cue is okay (good meat, not very interesting sauce), and D & D (David & Daddy), a Seaside outfit that struggled to service the throngs of music-lovers who can’t imagine a jazz festival without a heavy, dripping plate of tri-tip, beans, white bread and cole slaw. By late Saturday afternoon, with only one of the Ds working, the booth had to close for a spell: they’d run out of food, and
D was overwhelmed. “I gotta catch up,” he explained in a voice thin from exhaustion.
Later I would manage to taste some of D & D’s barbecue, and it’s even better than Smokin’ Jim’s. Melt-in-your-mouth pork ribs, and a sauce that was deliciously balanced between earthy and tang. I hope they have more help—and more meat—next year.
In the best jazz performances, you know the music is real, no conning or fakery, and the same is true of food. I always gain weight during the Monterey Jazz Festival, because I’ve just got to have at least one bratwurst from the Sausage King (“More fun for your bun”), at least one slice of pie from the Bean Pie Man (“Ladies! If sweetness is your weakness, then have no fear, ‘cause your sweetman is here!”), and more Authentic Belgian Waffles (“Le Waf”) than I care to reveal.
Perhaps that’s why by late Sunday afternoon I was ready for a nap. I spread out a blanket on the lawn of the Garden Stage, took off my shoes, and stretched out my body that was tired but happy from so much amazing music. My sleepy drifting mind took me to days at the beach when I was a boy, a hovering blur of light and breeze, the floating, strangely comforting sound of distant grown-up voices. I thought about how food at the beach, or anywhere outdoors, just plain tastes better, and maybe that’s why I get so excited about eating and drinking at the jazz festival, even if I hate drinking out of a plastic cup. Even if I wish they sold some decent beer! (Next year? Please?)
The band started to tune up. I roused myself just in time to see my honey return with more sausages and beer. I tucked into the glorious meal of well-cooked sausage with grilled onions, sauerkraut, mustard, and a fresh bun, as the music began. I swayed back and forth and sipped my beer. The setting sun threw a kaleidoscope of bright filtered light across the crowd. I looked around and noticed that I wasn’t the only one smiling.