< Back to Oral History project: New Orleans Eats
< Back to Oral History project: Tabasco Guardians of the Tradition
Nancy Ochsenschlager and Michelle Nugent
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
The first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival took place in 1970 at Congo Square, across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. It was a revolutionary yet modest affair in the earliest years, with just a smattering of food vendors: Sonny Vaucresson sold hot sausages, Buster Holmes brought his red beans and rice, a city government worker made the noodle soup ya-ka-mein, someone sold Angelo Brocato’s cookies, and soft-shell crabs and catfish were there from the beginning. So was Nancy Ochsenschlager. She came down to New Orleans as a young woman to sell hand-crafted neckties in the French Market; there she happened to meet Quint Davis, one of the festival’s founders. From that meeting forward, Jazz Fest defined the structure of Nancy’s year. She has worn many hats—fair director, crafts director, food director. Even her official retirement in 2005 and a home in Guatemala haven’t kept her away entirely.
Michelle Nugent built her year around the festival long before Nancy became her boss. When interviewing for cooking positions in other parts of the country, she insisted that her employment come with one condition: vacation every year during Jazz Fest. On show days, Michelle wears a tool belt, a head of braids, and a bit of costume—maybe bat wings or a tiara. The ensemble represents her simultaneous workmanlike and joyful approach to the job, an attitude that enables her to get hot water and electricity to each of the roughly seventy food vendors’ booths each festival day, and still find the energy to wonder whether turtle soup or hogshead cheese could possibly be added to the roster next year.