A Taste of New Orleans in the Northeast
It began in 1989 as a small crawfish boil for 70 people homesick for Louisiana cooking. Today, it has evolved into a three-day, NOLA-style music, food, and camping festival featuring some of the best that New Orleans and Louisiana have to offer. Michael Arnone’s 26th annual Crawfish Fest took place in late May at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta, New Jersey, bringing the cuisine and culture of the French Quarter to the northeast.
"When I came up in 1986, the economy in Louisiana was really bad. I’m an electrician, and their local called our local and said send some guys up,” says Arnone. “So we came up here to work, and we got homesick. You know how you want bagels when you go down south, and we don’t have ‘em? We want jambalaya, and we want crawfish. So it was a little party. It had two bands, and we did 300 pounds of crawfish and a pot of jambalaya."
Crawfish Fest has come a long way from the neighborhood party Arnone described. “We had 70 really happy people, so we decided to do it again, and it doubled. And then it tripled. It just kept getting bigger and bigger, and finally we outgrew that venue and now we’re on our third venue."
Hosting thousands of attendees, this year’s Crawfish Fest featured 24 bands on four stages with Jazz Fest fixtures and Louisiana locals rocking the fairgrounds to a mix of Cajun, zydeco, Delta blues, New Orleans R&B, brass, gospel and jazz. Big-name bands and NOLA favorites like Dr. John and the Night Trippers, Anders Osborne, Honey Island Swamp Band, and Lost Bayou Ramblers rounded out the impressive line-up.
By noon, three bands at a time were jamming, crowds of people were dancing, and kids’ activities were going strong. Tents, blankets, and chairs covered the main lawn. There were zydeco dance lessons in the dance hall.
But just as big a star of this show was the authentic Cajun cuisine. Crawfish Fest’s menu boasted over 20 dishes, served, mostly, by Louisiana natives. Fresh crawfish was trucked up from Louisiana alive and has been boiled by “Wild Bill” for 25 years. Louisiana’s Buckner family served beignets and other sweets. Liz Stirling, New Orleans native and former owner of the Cajun/Creole restaurant Oddfellows in Hoboken, New Jersey, grilled alligator sausage seasoned to perfection.
Also cooked up by the “Crawfish Krewe” were NOLA faves like crawfish étouffée, shrimp Creole, crawfish bread, po’boys, Southern fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, and more, with all dishes ringing up at $10 or less. Make your choices early — by the end of the day, many vendors were sold out.
The jambalaya is Arnone’s specialty, and it’s his family recipe that’s dished out at the fest. "My daddy used to [cook the jambalaya]. And then my mother used to cook it. We retired my daddy a few years ago. Now his apprentice cooks my jambalaya.” The jambalaya is so popular that Arnone sells his mix online.
Arnone’s biggest concern for the day seemed to be making sure everyone ate: "Did you eat? What'd you eat?" But with so many options, he can’t recommend one favorite menu item, touting everything from the new bread bowls for the étouffée (“You know, I keep thinking of that bread bowl.”) to the alligator sausage to the catfish tacos. “Something new this year, try the catfish taco... You know I used to think that didn't sound very appetizing, and then a buddy of mine made one in Louisiana and I'm like 'Oh my God. I gotta bring these to the Crawfish Fest.' So we did."
With the growth over the last 26 years, the reach of Crawfish Fest has far exceeded New Jersey. NOLA-loving residents of the Northeast use it as a fix between travels. Cajun food and music lovers from all over the country come in for the fest, including some Louisianans, which Arnone finds the best form of flattery.
"A couple of my friends from Louisiana came up. That's probably the biggest compliment we can get, is somebody from Louisiana comes to New Jersey for our Crawfish Fest."
One last request Arnone shouts after me as I’m walking away from the interview: “Try the fried chicken!” So I did. And it was worth it.