by Margaret Cabaniss
The blogosphere is blowing up with Valentine’s Day crafts, treats, and how-to’s this week, but I’m preoccupied thinking about next week’s other big holiday: Mardi Gras!
In America, we mostly tend to associate Mardi Gras with Bourbon Street debauchery, but its origins have little to do with beads and floats: It was the custom in traditionally Catholic countries to feast and celebrate on the day (or days) before the beginning of Lent, a season of prayer and self-sacrifice that itself leads to the biggest feast day on the Christian calendar, Easter. The elaborate parades, masks, and traditions we now associate with the holiday grew out of those celebrations.
Obviously, not everyone marks the religious significance associated with Mardi Gras today, but the basic idea of seasons of feasting and fasting, celebrating and reflecting, has a natural resonance with the slow lifestyle: a time for everything, and everything in its time.
And, of course, smack in the middle of a cold and dreary winter, it’s just plain fun to have an excuse to cut loose and celebrate with some good food. Here in the States, Mardi Gras means New Orleans, which means lots of delicious Southern food; here’s a round-up of some of the best traditional dishes to serve for your own Mardi Gras celebration.
King cake. Mardi Gras is actually the last day of the longer carnival season that traditionally begins on Epiphany (January 6), the Christian holiday that celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings at the birthplace of Jesus. “King cakes” eventually became a staple of carnival season in the States, and this time of year you can find them all over the South. You can order traditional king cakes by mail or set about making your own — just don’t forget the baby!
Jambalaya. Nothing says New Orleans like jambalaya. I made the Lee Brothers’ version for Mardi Gras last year, and it was the perfect “last meal” before the more austere days of Lent — packed with shrimp, sausage, chicken, and more flavor than you can shake a stick at.
Pancake dinner. Sometimes you’ll hear Mardi Gras (the French for “Fat Tuesday”) called “Shrove Tuesday” — “shrove” being an old English word meaning to be cleansed of sin. “Shriving” was part of the preparation for Lent, which also included clearing out your stores of foods like sugar, milk, and eggs (which weren’t fasting-friendly); and, as there’s no better way to use up all those ingredients at once than a giant stack of pancakes, a tradition was born. I’m still looking for the perfect pancake recipe, but I love these buckwheat pancakes for being a little more substantial and dinner-friendly.
Beignets. Not so much traditional to Mardi Gras in particular as New Orleans in general…but are you really going to quibble when it comes to fried pastry?
Do you celebrate Mardi Gras? Any traditions or recipes to share?