Fat Tuesday kicked-off yesterday with the famous Mardi Gras parade. Mardi Gras is celebrated on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The holiday is the start to Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter. During Lent many Christians give up bad habits, or repent. This may explain why Madri Gras is the exact opposite! Known for indulgences and chaos, the Mardi Gras holiday is one of a kind. It is a day that has been celebrated since medieval times in Italy and France. The tradition was introduced to Louisiana by French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste de Bienville, New Orleans founder. Today, New Orleans is one of our country’s most unique melting pots of culture. The city is full of mystery, excitement, music, jubilance, and some of the best food in the world. With the French bringing their cooking techniques to the area and the locals incorporating their unique flavors, along with a mixture of cuisines, New Orleans has introduced us to food that is exclusive to the Big Easy.
In New Orleans gumbo is nearly in its own food group. This stew served over rice is a perfect example of the diverse groups of people that contributed to the foods of the area. The base flavors, bay leaf and sassafras were introduced by native Americans, the thickener is a roux, a classic French method which New Orleanians decided served them better blackened rather than the traditional blonde. Gumbo receives its name from the West African word for okra– kimgombo. Gumbo recipes vary dramatically between eras, regions, restaurants, and families. You can find almost anything in gumbo: squirrel meat, turtle, sausages, chicken, various sea foods, frog legs…The two hard and fast rules for gumbo are that the stew must be thickened with something and contain rice.
This massive sandwich comes from one of New Orleans’s most famous Italian delis, Central Grocery. In 1906, Signor Lupo Salvatore, the owner of the deli would supply the hardy lunches for the men who worked on the wharves. Originally the workers, mostly Sicilians, would come to the deli and asked for salamis, provolone, olives, and bread and ate them each separately. Signor soon realized he could serve all the savory Italian items on large, (10” round) and sturdy bread, muffaletta bread. To this day, folks line up out the door at Central Grocery for a taste of their famous muffalettas.
King Cakes can be found nearly everywhere in New Orleans during Mardi Gras season. The cinnamon dough is iced colorfully with traditional Mardi Gras colors (purple, green, and gold) and sometimes filled with praline or cream cheese. Unlike other cakes, hidden inside this treat is small trinket, usually a tiny toy baby. These cakes are popular from parties at the office to soirees at home. Whoever is lucky enough to receive the piece of cake with baby becomes the king or queen of party and is meant to buy the king cake for the next get-together. The baby is also thought to bring good fortune. French and Spanish settlers brought the tradition to the Gulf where similar cakes were made to celebrate Twelfth Night.
Other classic New Orleans recipes:
The Sazerac: A cocktail dating back to the early 1800’s.
Crawfish Etouffée: Hard to find outside of the Big Easy, but easy enough to make at home!