For years, Carmen Marotta has been bringing the music of New Orleans to the New Jersey shore.
On Saturday, he will be bringing the Crescent City's food for folks here to enjoy.
Marotta is the organizer of the At the Shore Jersey Gumbo Cookoff and Music Festival in Somers Point.
Marotta promises "an authentic New Orleans-style food and music festival," complete with 14 different types of gumbo for people to sample while enjoying some authentic New Orleans tunes performed by the musicians who made them famous.
Marotta, best known for organizing his summer series of outdoor music concerts in Somers Point and Atlantic City, got the idea for the gumbo festival when someone approached him about staging an old-fashioned New Jersey chowderfest. But the seeds of Marotta's fascination with the music and culture of the Big Easy go back to his childhood, when he was a boy living above Tony Mart, the iconic shore bar on Bay Avenue in Somers Point run by his father, the equally legendary Anthony Marotta Sr. The younger Marotta still remembers those summer evenings, trying to drift off to sleep while the music of Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Ernie K-Doe shimmied up through the floorboards.
"There were songs like 'Blueberry Hill' or 'Mother-in-law.' I didn't have a chance to not have this in my blood," said Marotta, who is now 56 and lives in Egg Harbor Township with his wife, Nancy.
But Marotta didn't realize just how deeply those songs had worked their way into the fabric of his psyche until he and Nancy made their first trip to New Orleans for the 1984 World's Fair.
Suddenly - taking in the food, the music and the sights of New Orleans - this New Jersey born and bred boy felt at home.
"We liked the World's Fair, but then, when we went to Bourbon Street, I felt like I was back in my childhood. I felt like I was back home," Marotta said. "It was really a remarkable, revelatory thing for us. We just fell in love with it. We loved the jazz, the funk ... all of it just fell into place."
The couple was so smitten with the place, they eventually moved there for a while in the 1990s. Marotta, who - with his brother- had been running Tony Mart before it was sold in 1982, teamed up with another old friend to start a club in the French Quarter. That friend was Levon Helm, better known as the drummer in The Band, and a regular performer at the old Tony Mart.
The Marottas found themselves an apartment in the French Quarter - it was in the building Marlon Brando famously screamed "Stella" to in the film "A Streetcar Named Desire" - and started making friends and enjoying life in their new city.
"The club did not last, but it did introduce us to a lot of the performers in New Orleans," Marotta said. The couple also got friendly with chefs in the city, taking cooking classes and immersing themselves in the cuisine of their new home.
Marotta took what he learned in New Orleans and combined them with lessons in Italian cooking learned from his mother to create his own style of Cajun and Creole cooking.
"I'm a very good cook," he said. "I'm not a chef - I don't know how to run a restaurant - but I'm a good cook," he said.
The Marottas made their way back to southern New Jersey, where they became the driving force behind the Somers Point Beach Concert series, the Music That Made Tony Mart Famous series and the former Mardi Gras on the Boardwalk series in Atlantic City.
It was through those endeavors Marotta kept in touch with many of the musicians he'd met in New Orleans, booking them for his New Jersey shows and creating a cadre of southern New Jersey fans for this uniquely southern music.
It was the success of these musical endeavors that got Marotta involved in the gumbo fest. Approached by Ventnor's Ed Blake to organize a chowder festival along the lines of the popular event held each fall on Long Beach Island, Marotta countered with the idea of a chowder and gumbo fest.
But, when he told some friends who are local chefs, they convinced him to stick with what he knew best and keep the event strictly gumbo.
"They said 'No, no, go with the gumbo. No one does that around here," Marotta said.
Either way, Blake, a professional recruiter specializing in the medical, banking and hospitality industries, was OK with the change, as long as Marotta was in charge of the event.
"He has quite a following with that music in Somers Point. I think it will be a hit - I really do. For our first year, I'll be happy to get 1,000 people there, but I think it will grow every year," Blake said.
A portion of proceeds from the event will benefit Seashore Gardens Living Center, Access One which provides services to chronically ill patients and the Shirley Mae Breast Cancer Assistance Fund. Somers Point Volunteer Fire Company No. 1, which is hosting the event, will also benefit.
Marotta hopes the festival opens local eyes as to the diversity and richness of New Orleans-style cooking and all that is gumbo.
"The thing with New Orleans cooking is that the flavors are so profound - and that doesn't mean hot," he said. "One of the greatest misconceptions about New Orleans cooking is that it is hot. It's not. It's about the herbs and flavors, onion, green pepper, celery, and also the melange of spices."
For his festival, Marotta knows there will be duck gumbo, shrimp gumbo, seafood gumbo and cajun okra gumbo chock full of chicken and andouille sausage.
Marotta's gumbo will feature Cajun and Italian influences as well as one prominent southern New Jersey ingredient.
"I'm going to make Jersey Crab Gumbo with lots of New Jersey crabs," Marotta said.
And while food will be an attraction at the festival, it wouldn't be a Marotta event without a healthy lineup of New Orleans music and musicians, including Terrance Simien and The Zydeco Experience, Jumpin' Johnny Sansone and His New Orleans Allstars. But, like Marotta's gumbo, the musical offerings also will include a healthy dose of New Jersey in the mix, in the form of former E Street Band drummer Vini Lopez and License To Chill.
"The buzz on this is very strong. We need people to come out and support it, because we want this to be an annual event," said Marotta, who has already starting planning next year's event. "We are popular and well-recognized for our musical representations, so people should definitely come. And the gumbo will be good, so we hope they'll want to come back."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
At The Shore Jersey Gumbo Cookoff and Music Festival
Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday at Somers Point Fire Company No. 1, 447 Bethel Road. Tickets $20, $30 for VIP, including early admission and special seating. For more information, call 609-653-6069 or email