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Putting the “Fat” in Fat Tuesday: The Traditional Foods of Mardi Gras

Putting the “Fat” in Fat Tuesday: The Traditional Foods of Mardi Gras

Story by JODI ANDERSON • Artwork from DEPOSITPHOTOS.COM

When you think of Mardis Gras, you probably imagine colorful floats, parades, shimmering beads, music, and feasting. Mardi Gras technically refers to the Tuesday deemed “Fat Tuesday,” before Ash Wednesday, which ushers in the season of Lent in the Christian tradition. For religious observers, Fat Tuesday is a final opportunity for indulgence before a long season of fasting. Traditional food and drinks are rich and fatty — perfect for partygoers with an appetite for celebration.  

Start The Party Right With a Hurricane

This sweet, rum-based drink was created at Pat O’Brien’s bar during World War II, when whiskey was difficult to get. The name comes not from the many hurricanes that hit the region but from the shape of the glass: it resembles a hurricane lamp, which was an oil lamp with a high glass chimney to protect the flame from wind. The drink calls for both light and dark rum; passion fruit, orange, and lime juice; simple syrup; and grenadine. The cocktail is shaken, not stirred, poured over ice, and garnished with a maraschino cherry and orange slice. 

The Obligatory Crawfish Boil

Crawfish are lobster-like freshwater crustaceans found in the swamps of the Louisiana Bayou, as well as brooks and streams, or wherever fresh water is running. In the 18th century, the Acadians, now Cajuns, immigrated from Canada and settled along the bayous. They learned to trap crawfish from the Native Americans (especially the Houma tribe, who used the “mudbug” as a symbol of fierceness), and adapted lobster recipes from their native country. Then, crawfish were considered a poor man’s food, as they were plentiful and cheap. Now, thousands of crawfish boils are held across the state. In the 1980s, the crawfish was officially crowned the Louisiana state crustacean.

Host Your Own Boil: A Quick How-To 

To host your own crawfish boil, you will need a large pot that holds two quarts of liquid for every pound of crawfish you are boiling, as well as a gas or propane burner big enough to hold the pot. 

  • Buy your crawfish live right before your boil to ensure absolute freshness. 
  • Plan on providing three to five pounds of crawfish for each guest.
  • “Mudbug” is not just another name for crawfish (also referred to as crayfish or crawdads in various parts of the country): it is a description. You will need a hose and a large ice chest to clean and store the crustaceans. 
  • Don’t forget the seasoning! Cajun seasoning traditionally consists of chili pepper, red pepper, garlic, paprika, cayenne, and oregano, among others. You can buy a ready-made spice mix or research recipes on how to make your own. The ratio of seasoning—also called seafood boil—is about one pound for every 15 pounds of crawfish. 
  • Finally, add your choice of vegetables. Corn, potatoes, and onions are commonly used, but you can also add mushrooms and artichokes, or whatever you want. Sometimes, sausage is added as well.
  • Set the pot to boil and once the water is roiling, add your spices, vegetables, and sausage, if using. Once the vegetables are tender, place the live crawfish in the pot and wait for the water to return to a boil. Let them boil for no longer than three minutes; they will continue to cook as you remove them. Strain everything in a large colander. Serve on a newspaper-covered surface and dig in!

Po-Boy (Oh Boy!) 

If you are in the mood for a sandwich, look no further than the po-boy, a Gulf Coast version of the sub.   Served on French bread that was originally baked in 40-inch loaves and sliced into shorter lengths, the po-boy originated from the Martin Brothers’ French Market Restaurant and Coffee Stand, during the 1929 streetcar strike in New Orleans. The brothers fed the members of the union, as they were fighting for their rights and defying strikebreakers, a fight they ultimately lost.

For religious observers, Fat Tuesday is a final opportunity for indulgence before a long season of fasting. 

The crusty French bread is now standardized at around 30-32 inches in length, but the filling varies widely: shrimp, oyster, catfish, soft-shell crab, fried eggplant, French fries, roast beef, and ham and cheese, just to name a few. The meat is usually fried. If you order the po-boy “dressed,” you will get a topping of lettuce, tomato, mayo, and pickles. Sometimes, the mayo is the base for a remoulade, a chilled sauce that can be infused with various spices and herbs but always includes capers and pickles. The sandwich represents the culinary variety and resilience in the region; it was one of the first items to reappear on restaurant menus after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans.

Jambalaya, A Spicy Signature Dish 

This famous dish originated in the French Quarter of New Orleans, most likely when the Spanish attempted to make paella with local ingredients. Caribbean spices eventually made their way into the one-pot rice dish, creating a unique blend of French, Spanish, and West African cultures. During the 19th and 20th centuries, jambalaya was adapted from indoor to outdoor cooking over a hardwood fire. Its versatility and ease of preparation in large quantities rapidly increased its popularity at large events, such as church fairs, political rallies, weddings, and family reunions. 

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The base of all jambalaya is sofrito, a trinity of finely chopped onion, celery, and bell pepper, but the dish can be composed of myriad ingredients. There are two distinct styles: Cajun and Creole. The Cajuns receive the credit for creating the dish, referred to as “brown” jambalaya. Chicken, pork  sausage (e.g. andouille), ham, shrimp, crawfish, and game are common to the Cajun style. Generally, all ingredients are tossed in the pot at once and cooked low and slow. The Creole version is called “red” jambalaya, due to the tomatoes that lend it their color. Layering is more important in this style, with the meats browned first, then onions, then bell peppers, then celery, and so on.

King Cake: A Rich & Royal Ending 

Looking for a sweet ending to your Mardi Gras feast? King cake, a sweet pastry ring, is just the thing. Brought to New Orleans from France in 1870, this crown-shaped cake-y bread can be made from cake batter, bread dough, or pastry. Some versions are split and filled with cream or fruit. Toppings of candied fruit, icing, and sugar are common, as well. The Louisiana-style cake, which now more closely resembles the Spanish version, is always decorated with the Mardi Gras colors: green (representing faith), gold (power), and purple (justice). 

Integral to the king cake is a plastic baby Jesus, which is baked or hidden inside the cake. The tradition started back in the 1950s, when McKenzie’s, a commercial bakery, popularized a porcelain baby. Later, porcelain was swapped out for more readily-available plastic, but after concerns of baking plastic into food, the figurines are now usually sold alongside the cake. The host of the Mardi Gras feast will hide the baby inside the cake and serve slices to guests. The guest who finds the baby is responsible for holding the next year’s celebration. 

Due to their popularity, these foods are available in New Orleans year-round. But what better time to bring a taste of New Orleans into your home and celebrate Mardi Gras safely? Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Jodi Anderson
Editor at The Chews Letter | Website | + posts

Jodi is an aspiring professional baker. Her specialty is dairy-free desserts. She looks forward to developing more recipes for food lovers with restricted diets.

Find her on Instagram: @jodissweetstreats

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