Big Freedia’s weekly Garden Cookout in City Park is more about Freedia than food | Keith Spera

The focus of Big Freedia’s Garden Cookout is, in descending order of priority, Big Freedia, the garden and the actual cookout.

Since July, Freedia, the multiplatform Queen Diva of Bounce, has presided over a weekly cooking-themed webcast at the New Orleans Botanical Garden in City Park’s Kitchen in the Garden pavilion. The Friday night events are livestreamed on Freedia’s social media outlets.

The Garden Cookout expands on Freedia’s popular Sunday morning at-home cooking webcast and replaces some touring income lost to the coronavirus pandemic. Forty spectators seated at socially distanced tables each pay $90, or $120 to sit at one of the front tables. Tickets must be purchased through EventBrite in blocks of at least two, to fill tables with self-contained groups.

Freedia’s cottage industry, built from the ground up after years of toil on the New Orleans club circuit, encompasses recording, touring, an autobiography, branded bubbly and aprons, collaborations with the likes of Beyoncé and six seasons of a Fuse network reality show, alternately titled “Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce” and “Big Freedia Bounces Back,” from 2013 to 2017.

If the Oct. 2 Garden Cookout was typical, chatting and cutting up take precedence over actual cooking.

Fans “wiggle” to Big Freedia’s music during Big Freedia’s Garden Cookout at the New Orleans Botanical Garden in City Park, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020.

Early arrivals, wearing mandatory face masks, were escorted through the lovely Botanical Garden — it’s even more enchanting at night — to the brightly lit Kitchen in the Garden. Completed last fall, the open-air kitchen pavilion hosts culinary-themed educational and social events.

From 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., attendees patronized a cash bar while DJ Juane Jordan spun music. Freedia appeared in a sequined facemask, glittering purple pants and a custom chef’s coat bearing the image of his late, beloved mother, Vera, going quickly from table to table to pose for pictures.

And then it was show time. As cameras streamed the action on Facebook Live, Freedia, whose charisma translates well to the small screen, held court from behind the stove. A trio of friends, including longtime sidekick and dancer Tootie Tootz, provided running commentary from a corner of the countertop.

Big Freedia’s “Garden Cookout” series continues on Thursdays at City Park through August. The Queen Diva also live-streams the cooking demonstration on social media.

Freedia’s sister, Crystal, was in attendance with her young daughter. The Oct. 2 show celebrated the 60th birthday of Vera, who died of cancer in 2014, as well as the birthday of Devon, Freedia’s boyfriend.

(Freedia, who is fine with both masculine and feminine pronouns, recently wrote in the online magazine The Root, “I was born male and remain male — physically, hormonally and mentally. But I am a gay male. Some folks insist I have to be trans, but I don’t agree. I’m gender nonconforming, fluid, nonbinary. If I had known the ‘queen’ in Queen Diva would cause so much confusion, I might have called myself the king!”)

Early on, guests received a complimentary cocktail in a souvenir Garden Cookout plastic cup spiked with Ca’ di Freedia Rosé, Freedia’s signature sparkling pinot noir. Freedia announced that omnipresent manager Reid Martin was out of town, so “we’re gonna turn up in the name of Reid.”

As Freedia boiled water, Tootz collected questionnaires from audience members. Freedia’s responses to the questions, and Tootz and company’s banter, would consume most of the show.

People eat during Big Freedia’s Garden Cookout at the New Orleans Botanical Garden in City Park, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020.

What is your skincare regimen? “I only wash my face with a Dove soap bar,” Freedia said. “I’ve been doing that for years.”

What are your favorite places to perform? Berlin, London, Switzerland and Amsterdam, where “we went to a lot of coffeehouses. We smoked down, so we definitely had the munchies. We were runnin’ for food.”

Where did you learn to twerk? At Carter G. Woodson Middle School, grooving to early Juvenile tracks: “I was flippin’ upside down on the walls.”

Who was your favorite artist to collaborate with? “If I had to only pick one, it would be the queen, Beyoncé. That was just legendary.”

Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews normally feels right at home in the Dome.

Are you actually friends with Juan LaFonta, the local attorney who featured Freedia in his commercials? “Yes, I’m actually friends with Juan. He’s at my house all the time trying to eat.”

Freedia carefully considered a query about the best strain of marijuana before naming White Widow. “But just wait till the Freedia strain comes out. It’s called the Royal Buzz.”

Will there be another season of “Big Freedia Bounces Back”? “There will not be another season of that show. That chapter of my life is closed. If I open it back up, it will be with another company and on a new journey. I’m working on a few things. Fingers crossed.”

Midway through, an audience member also celebrating a birthday was called up during the “Twerk Break.” Freedia briefly twerked as well.

While talking, Freedia stirred up a pot of fellow rapper Mia X’s Mama Mia-brand wild yellow rice. “I’m the butter queen, so I like to put a little extra butter.”

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That was the extent of the night’s cooking or cooking tips. “Emeril Live,” this wasn’t.

The food served to Garden Cookout attendees was underwhelming: yellow rice, roast beef, green beans that tasted like they came out of a can. The best bites were the chicken salad appetizer from Baby’s Snack Shop and the sweet potato pie from Miss Wanda the Cake Lady. But overall, the food didn’t conjure a cooking show’s curated, $90 meal.

Big Freedia speaks about family during Big Freedia’s Garden Cookout at the New Orleans Botanical Garden in City Park, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020.

Maybe this was an off night. Maybe Freedia, the main attraction, was distracted, for reasons stated toward the end of the show.

“Today was kinda really hard to even pull this off. It still feels like yesterday that we lost our mom. It’s a struggle each and every day. I’m grateful that God keeps on holding us together, me and my sister. We lost our brother in ’18. It’s just me and her left now. God has really been good in changing our lives. We have become closer and closer each step of the way. I’m just grateful to have her in my life, and both of my nieces, and all of my family and friends that’s here with me tonight.”

At that, Freedia choked up. The audience applauded and cheered in support.

After exactly an hour, the show was over. “Thank ya’ll so much once again,” Freedia said. “We gonna bring out some desserts, and we gonna play some music, and we gonna party until we done.”

Freedia soon disappeared. With that, the party was in fact done.

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