Mardi Gras Weekend is coming to New Jersey once again to celebrate Michael Arnone’s 30th Annual Crawfish Fest. The little festival that could is celebrating its 30th milestone anniversary May 31-June 2, 2019, at the Sussex County Fairgrounds, with a festive 3-day lineup of celebrity acts and delicious food Cajun style.
Michael Arnone Makes Crawfish Fest Vision a Reality
The Baton Rouge native, Michael Arnone, found himself homesick for home cooking when transplanted in New Jersey for work in the mid-1980s. In 1985 the IBEW union electrician was forced to seek work in the Garden State due to a shortage of jobs in his home state. After a few years, in 1988, Arnone found himself missing some comforts of home, especially the food.
With inspiration from a local restaurant ad featuring Jambalaya, Arnone was motivated to have a springtime crawfish boil coupled with music to bring some of his home state goodness to NJ. May 20, 1989, marked the first year of what has become Arnone’s annual festival.
That year he flew in 300-pounds of crawfish and had his parents play chefs. They cooked up a huge pot of pork sausage and chicken jambalaya. Arnone rented a space in a Riverdale park and hired two bands, Peach Fish Pie and Bayou Midnight, to celebrate in festive Mardi Gras style.
Enticing fellow Louisiana expatriates with an ad in the Good Cajun Times, Arnone was leased to have 70 people attend that first gathering:
“A lot of those folks were strangers but left as friends, many of them still attend the festival.”
Arnone’s Crawfish Fest Grows to Include Celeb Headliners
With the first year being a hit, Arnone made the decision to continue the festivities, that has become an entire weekend festival celebration, every year in New Jersey. As the festival grew so did its venues, first moving to the Waterloo Village Concert Field in 1995 and then, in 2001, to its now home at the 130-acre Sussex County Fair Grounds in Augusta, NJ.
Even after moving back to Louisiana in 2000 Arnone continues to produce the festival every year in NJ – as he did not want to end the joy that so many people had celebrating the yearly New Jersey tradition. From only two bands in that the first year, the Annual Crawfish Fest will now be wowing the crowds with 23 bands on four stages in 2019.
The relaxed family-friendly environment will be singing along and dancing to the sounds of famed headliners. Aaron Neville, Dr. John, the Marcus King Band, The Funky Meters, Marcia Ball, Terrance Simien, along with Mardi Gras Indian acts will be on stage to entice Mardi Gras enjoyment.
NJ 30th Crawfish Fest Entices with Food Specialties
Along with the wonderful music is the amazing food that Arnone personally sees to. He now brings in 10,000-pounds of crawfish to star at the festivities. Along with crawfish are 3,000 Louisiana gulf shrimp and Louisiana oysters and catfish brought in from the Delta. The shrimp and oysters are prepared on 3000 loaves of French Bread imported fresh from the famed New Orleans’ Leidenheimer Baking Company.
The exciting menu is to have 12 to 15 different food items. Arnone uses his cooking abilities, handed down to him by his father, to train people in Louisiana to help cook for the festival. The two main jambalaya chefs served as Arnone’s father’s apprentices for 10 years.
The festival creator is proud to share his special recipes in honor of Mardi Gras.
Arnone Speaks About Life and His Crawfish Fest
Arnone likes that even as his vision has grown to become a famed festival celebrating its 30th year, it still has the comfort of a small back home party:
“I want you to feel like it’s a party in my backyard with friends and family. And that’s what Mardi Gras means to us – friends, family, music, and favorite family recipes…. From grilling oysters to frying catfish, to crawfish etouffee to Pralines. We do it all.”
Carol Ruth Weber: You lived in New Jersey for a few years before you dreamt up what would become the Crawfish Festival that you hold now – How did you acclimate to living in your northern home away from home?
Michael Arnone: It was tough, nobody really understood when I talked – I had way more of an accent back then. Me and my friends back home would get together and always cook jambalaya and crawfish, and I missed it. I decided to rent a small pavilion and we had our first crawfish boil. Everybody loved it. I printed 1500 tickets and I sold 70 – I was optimistic. Everybody had such a great time I said, you know what let’s do it again. Each year it would double and triple and we outgrew that venue and had to move to another venue.
CRW: Although an electrician by trade, did you ever dream of being a chef since you love cooking and sharing your delicious recipes?
MA: Never. Never entered my mind to be a festival producer.
CRW: I am sure you are very happy to be living in Louisiana again but what are some things you miss about living in New Jersey or the metro NY area?
MA: Bagels and Pizza. I didn’t even know what a bagel was. For a week, a kid would ask me if I wanted a bagel and I didn’t know what a bagel was. Finally, I said okay and then he asked me what kind. I said I didn’t know – it took me a week to decide to eat one.
CRW: As such a lover of food from your own home state, did you come to appreciate such NY staples as pizza and bagels?
MA: I actually came home and built a pizza oven in my back yard. I have a wood-burning pizza oven in my backyard in Louisiana now.
CRW: What are your favorite things to do when you are not preparing for the Crawfish Fest?
MA: I go to the beach a lot. I like to have backyard parties, and my newest therapy is I’ve been taking guitar lessons for four years.
CRW: Do you conceive to grow your Crawfish Fest to even larger than it has become now?
MA: No, I am comfortable being a medium size festival.
The Crawfish Fest is a Magnitude of Bayou Fun
Arnone did not conceive that first year 30 years ago that his Cajun celebration would turn into the largest festival on the East Coast. The Crawfish Fest now annually brings in near to 20,000 people for a weekend of unforgettable enjoyment, with the best of music and food that one normally would only find in Louisiana.
The music includes Bayou-based Cajun, Zydeco, Delta Blues, New Orleans R&B, Brass, Gospel, and Jazz. Stomachs will sing in yummy delight with delicious Louisiana delicacies such as fresh Boiled Louisiana Crawfish, Jambalaya, Crawfish Etouffee, Alligator Sausage, Po-boys (oyster, shrimp, and catfish), Char-Grilled Oysters, and Southern Fried Chicken.
Along with the fabulous headliners are a talented lineup of musicians excited to celebrate Mardi Gras joy in New Jersey. Scheduled to perform are: Neville Jacobs, Rebirth Brass Band, Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience, Cowboy Mouth, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters, Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie, Bishop Gunn, Corey Henry and the Treme Funktet, John Papa Gros Band, Jonathon Long, Flow Tribe, Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, Darcy Malone and the Tangle, Amanda Fish, The Iceman Special, Jesse Lege and Bayou Brew, Tony Smith and the You Know How We Do Crew, and Big Mamou.
Tickets for the three-day festival are now on sale:
Festival-goers can purchase 2019 Crawfish Fest Single Day, 2 Day Combo, Group, on site 4 day/3 nights Camping/ Admission, and King Crawfish Krewe Tickets (main stage pit passes). Advance tickets start at $35 for adults (free for children under 14 with parent), and are available through the official website.
“The great thing about this festival is its incredible authenticity,” says festival creator-producer and Louisiana import Michael Arnone. “It’s so real that for everybody who’s moved up North from Louisiana, everyone who’s homesick, this is like going home for a few days. The Louisiana atmosphere, the crawfish, the jambalaya, it’s all there. I tell people the music brings them, but the food keeps them.”