Cel­e­brat­ing Mardi Gras with food

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“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.kingarthur­ — 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.ran­daz­zok­ing­; Gam­bino’s, www.gam­bi­; and Hay­del’s, www .hay­del­bak­ 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!


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