Celebrating Mardi Gras with food
“Most people who live near a parade route will open their houses during Carnival so people can use the bathroom and take a break. More often than not food is involved, too — it is, after all, New Orleans. Spicy red beans and rice, maybe with some andouille, is a great way to feed the masses. I can smell it now: a creamy stew made with celery, onion, green pepper — the trinity — and garlic, thyme, bay leaves, Tabasco.” An old friend of mine lived in New Orleans’ Garden District for at least a decade; when I recently asked him about his memories of Mardi Gras, this was the beginning of his lyrical reminiscence.
Another friend recalled a cousin’s celebration in her hometown of Houma, Louisiana. “She had two huge propane burners going. She fried fresh oysters from Grand Isle and battered catfish on one burner all day long. She had marinated the catfish in Crystal hot sauce all night. A huge vat of shrimp and sausage jambalaya bubbled on the other burner. She served king cake and beers and soft drinks and unfancy wine. She had a big pot of chicken and sausage gumbo on the kitchen stove and, of course, white rice to go with it. And plenty of French bread. Grandparents and babies and teenagers and friends and family sauntered in and out.”
Much like beads, parades, and music, food is an integral component of Mardi Gras celebrations. French for “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras — which this year falls on Tuesday, Feb. 28 — is the Carnival celebration preceding Ash Wednesday; the name refers to the practice of eating fatty, indulgent foods one last time before the Lenten fasting begins. Even if you don’t observe Lent, Mardi Gras is a great excuse to enjoy some traditional Louisianan food, whether it’s king cake for breakfast, a po’ boy for lunch, or gumbo or jambalaya for dinner.
“If you say Mardi Gras food, of course I’ll think of king cake. That’s the classic,” my New Orleans friend said. King cake is a slightly sweet, typically briochelike bread filled with cream cheese, a fruity jam, or cinnamon and sugar. The cake is iced and strewn with purple, green, and gold sugars — representative of justice, faith, and power, respectively. A bean, a nut, or a plastic baby (said to represent Jesus) will often be inserted into the cake; finding the “baby” in your slice confers some special privileges (in my own family, you were considered king or queen for the day), but you’re also on the hook for acquiring the next day’s king cake.
The internet is strewn with recipes for king cakes (one from King Arthur Flour — www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/mardi-gras-king-cake-recipe — is reliable), and famed regional chef John Besh offers his method in his 2009 tome, My New Orleans. You can have one delivered via mail from one of the popular regional bakeries, some of the best-known of which include Randazzo’s, www.randazzokingcake.com; Gambino’s, www.gambinos.com; and Haydel’s, www .haydelbakery.com. Locally, Whole Foods Market (753 Cerrillos Road) currently stocks king cakes with berry Chantilly, cinnamon, and cream cheese fillings.
The two predominant cuisines of Louisiana are Creole and Cajun. The former combines elements of Spanish, French, and African cooking; while the latter has its roots in French Acadia (the region people left for Louisiana in the late 17th and 18th centuries). Perhaps the cornerstone of Creole cooking, gumbo is an aromatic stew of onions, tomatoes, and meat — chicken, sausage, crab, ham, shrimp, oysters, or some combination thereof — thickened with filé powder (ground sassafras leaf) or okra (an African word for okra is the basis for the name of the dish).
Jambalaya is a popular dish found in both Cajun and Creole cuisines. The name reportedly derives from jambon, French for ham, though I’ve always liked the fact that it sounds like “jumble,” which this widely varying dish often is. Though it almost always includes rice and the “holy trinity” of onions, celery, and green bell pepper, it can otherwise contain nearly any meat, poultry, or seafood or a combination thereof. Étouffée is French for “smothered,” which is what you do to crab, shrimp, or crawfish (sometimes even turtle or rabbit) with a velvety, often roux-based sauce before serving it all over rice.
The history of the po’ boy — a hero sandwich of meat or fried seafood traditionally served on a fluffy baguette — is murky. One popular although probably apocryphal story holds that in the late 1920s, two New Orleans restaurateurs served free sandwiches to striking streetcar conductors, whom they referred to as “poor boys.”
Mardi Gras is practically synonymous with overindulgence in booze, and undoubtedly the cocktail most widely associated with both the holiday and the French Quarter is the hurricane. Liquor legend has it that bar owner Pat O’Brien created this lurid concoction by combining fruit juice and grenadine with rum, of which he had a surplus. If you can’t find a willing bartender around town, try making your own, but seek out fresh juices and avoid the powdered mix.
No matter where you’re from, you can be a Cajun, a Creole, or a New Orleanian for a day thanks to a handful of restaurants and bars around town.
Loyal Hound (730 St. Michael’s Drive) hosts a “supper club” ($55 per person; reservations are required) on Mardi Gras at 6:30 p.m. with a special menu that features shrimp rémoulade, ham and oyster pie, duck with savory beignet bread pudding, oxtail gumbo, and king cake with cream cheese ice cream.
The walls in the Cowgirl BBQ (319 S. Guadalupe St.) are already bedecked with purple, gold, and green decorations. Their special menu of Cajun and Creole dishes includes gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish étouffée, Cajun popcorn shrimp, cornmeal-battered fried okra, and bananas Foster. On Mardi Gras proper, the restaurant hosts a crawfish boil and “fais do-do” dance party.
The Democratic Party of Santa Fe County holds a Mardi Gras fundraiser at Skylight ($20 in advance, $30 at door; 139 W. San Francisco St.), with live music, prizes for costumes, and Cajun cuisine. Jeffrey Kaplan at Rowley Farmhouse Ales (1405 Maclovia St.) has crawfish po’ boy and étouffée specials in mind. Secreto Lounge at the Hotel St. Francis (210 Don Gaspar Ave.) will feature classic New Orleans cocktails and music by local community marching band the Hill Stompers, who also plan to stop by the Cowgirl, Low ’n’ Slow Lowrider Bar (Hotel Chimayó de Santa Fe, 125 Washington Ave.), and The Palace Restaurant and Saloon (142 W. Palace Ave.) on Mardi Gras.
If you’re in the DIY mood, turn to trusted sources like Justin Wilson, Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, or Besh, or track down a copy of River Road Recipes (published by the Junior League of Baton Rouge), which famed New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne called “one of the finest, most exciting regional cookbooks to be found in America.” As you get busy chopping the “trinity,” turn on some brass band music or zydeco (the name of which, by the way, may also be rooted in food: The French word for beans is “les haricots” — say it quickly). Now laissez les bon temps rouler!