Mardi Gras: New Orleans Style
Fat Tuesday is the literal meaning of Mardi Gras, the end of the post-Christmas, pre-Lenten season. Fat Tuesday precedes Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, during which Christians traditionally give up eating meat--at least on Fridays.
It is also common to forego the consummation of a favorite food, beverage, or habit during Lent. So Mardi Gras is a "last chance" celebration before the six weeks of Lenten abstinence. And both Cajuns in Southwest Louisiana and Creoles in New Orleans take the opportunity to laissez le bon temps roulez, or let the good times roll.
However, Mardi Gras is celebrated differently in the Big Easy and in Acadiana (Cajun Country). New Orleans residents are known for their parades, costumes, floats, music--especially music--games and colorful dress. While some folks are happy picnicking and watching the revelers pass by on foot, float, or in a parade, others are actors in this staged play of festivity.
In New Orleans, the Carnival actually begins on January 6th -- "Twelfth Night" or the Feast of the Epiphany -- and ends at midnight on "Fat Tuesday" (Mardi Gras day), 46 days before Easter. The Big Easy boasts more than sixty parades, which are worked on all year preceding each Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras celebrations are plentiful the week before the actual date (February 8th this year), and revelers are gearing up for the biggest, wildest celebration of the season: the five days preceding Fat Tuesday. This giant holiday is one of music and mayhem, parades and picnics, floats, and excitement. It is not an outing for the timid who prefer a quiet scene!
Even if not in costume, people often wear the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold; or at least layer upon layer of long colorful beads. They sit on the ground watching the crowds of people, who can be as entertaining as the parades.
One essential element of Mardi Gras is the King Cake, which may be purchased or made at home. Links to two recipes are offered below.
The "king cake" takes its name from the bible--referring to the three kings. In Catholic tradition it is believed that the journey of the three kings to Bethlehem took twelve days, thus the twelve days of Christmas. As the kings arrived to honor the Christ Child on Epiphany, the season for king cake extends from the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas to Mardi Gras day. King cake parties are held every week through the Carnival season.
The tradition was brought to the southern United States by French and Spanish colonists, and reflects back to the European Carnival. It is celebrated in the Gulf Coast region, but centered in New Orleans and, not as widely known, in Cajun Country.
The king cake is an essential part of the Mardi Gras celebration. In New Orleans, the king cake ranges in style from a simple ring of twisted bread topped with colored sugar, usually purple, green, and gold (the traditional Carnival colors), to varieties enhanced with frostings, and with fillings that may be simply sweetened cream cheese and fruit to more complicated mixtures with pralines and nuts in the fillings.
It is a tradition that a trinket--perhaps a fava bean or a small plastic baby--is hidden in the cake. Whoever gets the piece of cake with the trinket must provide the next king cake or host the next Mardi Gras party.
According to Poppy Tooker, head of New Orleans's Slow Food chapter and a well-known expert in Louisiana cookery, "People act like it's an honor to be crowned king for the day" (by getting the piece of cake with the trinket), "and get to throw the next party, but that's bullsh*t. I have met people who own up to swallowing the damn thing so they don't have to buy the cake!"
"I've never heard anybody admit to not liking king cake," says Tooker. "Our authenticity as a native New Orleanian would be called into question."
The links below will lead you to two New Orleans favorites that are enjoyed during Mardi Gras, as well as during the rest of the year:
See Mardi Gras: Cajun Style to read about the fascinating and festive celebrations of this holiday in Cajun Country, with the old-style "runs" during which costumed "runners" on horseback go from house to house asking for contributions for the pot of gumbo to be served that night.
Also see some favorite Cajun Mardi Gras recipes: