|Beads, beignets and bowls of gumbo|
|Roll out these food favorites for Mardi Gras|
|Published: Jan/Feb 2003
|By Barbara Gibbs Ostmann|
A magical madness breaks out annually in New Orleans on the last Tuesday before the start of Lent, the Christian season of penitence prior to Easter. The climax of the weeks-long carnival season, Mardi Gras is one last fling before Lenten fasting and self-denial.
Carnival, which is Latin for farewell to meat, begins on Jan. 6 (Twelfth Night or Epiphany) and continues through Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday (March 4 this year), the day before Ash Wednesday. It's a riot of multicolored beads, feathered masks, hot music, wild merry-makingand great food.
It's tough to think of New Orleans without thinking of foodand lots of it. People from all over are attracted to Cajun and Creole cooking because they're synonymous with New Orleans, which in turn is synonymous with good times. Creole and Cajun cooking enthusiasts point out that the cuisines are not the same, although outside Louisiana the distinctions are often blurred. Cajun cooking is the country cousin of sophisticated Creole cuisine.
The New Orleans most famous (or infamous) holiday has its own delicacies.
During the weeks of carnival leading to Mardi Gras, the food du jour is king cake, an oval-shaped coffee cake decorated with sugar in the official Mardi Gras colorsgold for power, green for faith and purple for justice. A small doll is baked inside the cake, and the person who gets the slice containing the doll must host the next party or buy the next cake for the office. At some parties, the recipient is crowned king or queen of the party.
The origins of king cake can be traced to the Middle Ages, when the celebration of Christmas often focused on the Three Wise Men, or kings, who followed a star to find the baby Jesus. Epiphany falls on Jan. 6, the Twelfth Night after the birth of Christ. The cake represents a kingly gift, and the baby doll baked inside (replacing the coin or bean used in earlier times) represents the Christ child found by the kings.
Today's king cakes come in a variety of styles and flavors. The basic version is yeast bread or brioche dough, usually braided, formed into an oval, and colorfully decorated to resemble a jeweled crown. The once-simple dessert now often comes stuffed with cream cheese and perhaps an additional filling of strawberry, chocolate, praline or lemon cream.
King cakes are widely available at bakeries throughout New Orleans. King cake boxed mixes are available from specialty food shops, or you can bake one from scratch.
King cake is the only real Mardi Gras food. Otherwise, people eat on the street or at parties where people serve the traditional foods, such as jambalaya. However, I think the food eaten most on Mardi Gras is Popeyes fried chicken, says Dale Curry, food editor of the Times-Picayune.
A staff member at the Louisiana Office of Tourism volunteered that Beer is the most popular Mardi Gras food.
Gumbo stars at Courir de Mardi Gras
In Lafayette, food writer Sandra Day confirms that king cake is the main treat in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, but gumbo has a starring role in the Courir de Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras Run, that is held in Cajun towns, such as Elton, Mamou and Eunice. Basically, the courir is a run in search of the ingredients for a communal gumbo.
There are Bayou Cajuns and Prairie Cajuns, and their diets are different, says Day. Mamou and nearby towns are in Prairie Cajun Country, so the gumbo is likely to be chicken or sausage, rather than the seafood gumbo found in Bayou Cajun Country.
The courir is a traditional rural celebration, with roots in the medieval tradition of ceremonial begging, says Kelly Strenge of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission. Bands of masked and costumed horseback riders roam the countryside begging for ingredients for their gumbo. Le capitaine, a caped and unmasked captain, leads the riders from farm to farm and asks permission to enter the property. Then the riders dismount and dance, sing, chase chickens or just act silly. The farm owner gives a donation, such as chicken, sausage, rice or onions, for the gumbo.
Often the horseback riders are accompanied by a band in a wagon or truck, adds Day. As the courir continues along its route, the parade grows as families follow along in their cars. Then everyone goes back into town and puts the gumbo together. The festivities end with a fais-do-do (dance) and lots of gumbo for everyone.
The courir is a tradition as well as a rite of passage, says Strenge. Perhaps the most authentic courir is the one held in Elton, where revelers wear traditional costumes with cone-shaped hats, screen masks and capes.
Please pass the Po-boys
Other popular foods, at Mardi Gras or anytime of year, are red beans and rice, jambalaya, Po-boys and muffalettas. The Po-boy, which is short for poor boy, is New Orleans version of a hero sandwich. It got its name in 1914 when two men sold them to co-workers for 10 cents apiece during a streetcar strike. A muffaletta is a variation on the Po-boy, and features a tangy olive salad and a round loaf of bread. Some chefs say jambalaya, a rice dish that can contain chicken, sausage, seafood and more, evolved from Spanish paella. Red beans and rice were traditionally a wash day staple, because they could be cooked on the back burner of the stove with little tending while the cook did the laundry.
No visit to Mardi Gras is complete without sipping a Hurricane, the rum and fruit juice drink that looks harmless, but packs a wallop. Don't forget to take time out to sit and enjoy a café au lait and beignet (a square hole-less doughnut) at the Café du Monde in the French Quarterits as much a tradition as the beads, masks and parades.
Order a king cake from Louisiana
Haydels Bakery, 4037 Jefferson Highway, Jefferson, LA 70121; 1-800-442-1342 or www.haydelbakery.com. The cake is made of Danish dough laced with cinnamon and sugar and topped with fondant icing and colored sugars. The package includes a cardboard crown, carnival beads and doubloons, a history of king cake, and a tiny doll baked inside the cake. Cost is $31.49, including next-day shipping; $35.49 with additional topping.
Meches Donut King, 402 Guilbeau Road, Lafayette, LA 70506; (337) 981-4918. The cake is made of doughnut dough and topped with green, purple and gold colored sugars, plus a filling of your choice. It comes with a history of king cake, a cardboard crown, carnival beads and a tiny baby doll to be tucked into the bottom side of the cake. Cost is $35, including next-day shipping.
|Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor from Gerald, Mo.|