June 27, 2022



The New Orleans Jazz Fest dish worth a 3-year wait

5 min read

Along the edge of the Gulf, Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Adams details the people, places, culture and moments that make New Orleans one of America’s most colorful and vibrant cities. 

On all seven days of the 2022 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Chef Linda Green woke up before dawn, assembled her crew and made sure she had all of her ingredients ready for the hundreds of people she was going to feed that day. She went home tired each night after manning a cramped kitchen tent on the hot fairgrounds, but she couldn’t have been happier doing what she does best: serving her famous fried pork chop sandwiches and Ya-Ka-Mein.

Three years is a long time to wait for your favorite dish, especially for New Orleanians. The Covid-19 pandemic, difficult enough as it was for brick-and-mortar restaurants and bars in a city so reliant on hospitality and tourism, was even harder on the countless pop-ups, food carts, street vendors, and caterers like Ms. Linda, who—without fixed locations—depend on New Orleans’ typically packed social calendar to sell their food at festivals, second-line parades, concerts and other events.

Jazz Fest is arguably the culmination of the city’s non-restaurant culinary calendar. Unlike the citywide weeks-long free-for-all that is Mardi Gras season, Jazz Fest is both centralized and organized, taking place entirely within the limits of the New Orleans Fair Grounds, with rows of food stalls lined up between the stages, selling famous dishes that many people will only get to eat on those two weekends each year.

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Chef Green—Ms. Linda to her friends and fans— is 64 years old, born and raised in uptown New Orleans, where she still lives. She learned how to cook from generations of women in her family, starting with her great grandmother Mama Georgia, her great Aunt Nettie, her grandmother Pearl Green, her aunt Pearl Johnson, and last but not least her mother, Shirley Green, who volunteered to cook for the St. Francis de Salle Catholic Church every Sunday and at their banquets, when she would donate the proceeds to buying the church kitchen appliances and supplies. Ms. Linda, like Shirley Green before her, would go on to work in food service for the Orleans Parish School Board until Hurricane Katrina when she lost her job and decided to cook her own dishes at local street parties and second line. Her most famous dish—a recipe passed down from her mother—is Ya-Ka-Mein, a New Orleans creole take on an Asian noodle soup that probably originated locally at some point in the late nineteenth century and was already a regular local dish by the 1920s. 

Ya-Ka-Mein, a New Orleans creole take on an Asian noodle soup.

Ya-Ka-Mein, a New Orleans creole take on an Asian noodle soup.

Courtesy of Linda Green

“It’s a Chinese dish,” explains Green, “that fell into the African American community. And we put our own herbs and spices into it and elevated that flavor. It was a poor man’s dish. Something you made with leftover meat, you know?”

Green’s own spice blend is a secret, flavoring the juice that comes from mixing roast chuck beef with hot sauce and soy sauce and wet noodles. The salty, spicy, hearty meal’s nickname, “Old Sober,” comes from its reputation as a hangover helper. At seven dollars a serving, Ms. Linda’s Ya-Ka-Mein—fragrantly peppery, with an umami savoriness—is also a few bucks cheaper than many of the festival’s famous po-boy vendors.   

New Orleans local Laurie Lacompte had been reading about Ms. Linda’s Ya-Ka-Mein for years and decided that her husband Adam, standing unsteadily beside her in merciful sunglasses, could probably use something after the previous day of Jazz Fest, so she ordered a cup for each of them.

Festival regulars Brendan and Jennifer Blackwell say Ms. Linda’s tent is the first place they go to every year.

“Even on a hot day Ya-Ka-Mein is good,” says Brendan.

“And it’s not too hot yet,” Jennifer points out. “That’s why we came here first.”

Two of Ms. Linda’s best friends, Lydia Benson and Elizabeth Dunams, come check on her at the tent. Later that afternoon they’re scheduled to parade through Jazz Fest with the Lady Rollers, a Social Aid and Pleasure Club of which Ms. Linda is the president. Right now, Benson is in a tie-dye dress and Dunams is wearing leopard print rubber boots, but before the parade, they’ll put on their brightly-colored costumes of rose-wrapped turbans, marabou feather fans, and faux fur stoles.

“Ms. Linda worked French Quarter Fest last weekend and I saw her first customer cry,” says Benson. “He said ‘ma’am, I’ve been waiting two and a half years for this.’” 

“She brings a lot of joy to people,” confirms Dunams. “Irma Thomas is the Queen of New Orleans soul music,” she says, gesturing toward the stage where Thomas is about to perform. “But Ms. Linda is the queen of New Orleans Soul Food.”

During the height of the pandemic, Green was able to earn some money cooking by partnering with the city government and World Central Kitchen to help feed New Orleanians in need—senior citizens, the poor, the homeless, the unemployed.

“She feeds everybody,” says Benson. “She’s a giver.”

“She gives too much in my opinion,” quips Dunams, noting Green’s tendency to feed festival workers for free.

Gabe Martin, a facilities manager at the fairgrounds, had one of Green’s pork chop sandwiches for the first time 14 years ago. 

“I couldn’t decide what to eat and I saw ‘breaded pork chop,’ so I ordered that,” he recalls. “The sandwich came fast and I didn’t look at it. When I did I saw it was just bread, pickle, and pork chop.”

The pork chop sandwich is, at first glance, underwhelming-looking. It is a beige cutlet with the bone still in, held between two similarly-colored pieces of soft white bread. The experienced know to dress their own sandwiches with the various packets of mayonnaise, ketchup, and hot sauce on the stall’s counter, but Martin was in a hurry and hadn’t noticed any of those. 

“I was mad,” he says. “But then I bit into it.”

He’s been eating them every year since.

“I know when I see her sign go up I’m like, ‘That’s my breaded pork chop!’”

Ms. Linda’s food is particularly popular at the Gospel Tent all the way on the other side of the fairground’s track. It’s not unusual to see people praising the Lord and waving their hands in the air between bites of Ya-Ka-Mein, mac and cheese, or bread pudding. Eighty-three-year-old Jeanne-Marie Ross (“that’s a French name, honey,”) slowly made her way all the way from the gospel tent across the festival grounds leaning on her walker to Ms. Linda’s booth and back—a round trip of about 25 minutes—in 87-degree heat just so could have a pork chop sandwich to eat when she wasn’t gingerly beating her tambourine in praise. 

“This is my third sandwich of the festival,” she announced with satisfaction.

“I’m just so excited that the festival is back,” says Green. “I can’t wait to do more festivals because it’s my livelihood and because I love festing and I love meeting people and I love cooking for them.”

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