On Mardi Gras, Community, and Les Américains

Cream cheese and almond filled king cakes I made myself.
Cream cheese and almond filled king cakes I made myself.

Happy Mardi Gras, ya’ll!!!

Fat Tuesday is always one of the most conflicted days of the year for me. During the Mardi Gras season the swamp water that fills my veins encourages me to ask, “what would I do, who would I be if there no rules for me to play by?” The season always fills me with a sense of possibility, hope, and mischief. I wake up every year on Mardi Gras day and yell out a joyous greeting to the world. But then I immediately remind myself that for the people around me, it’s just Tuesday, and my exited antics will only annoy people everywhere I go.

I haven’t been able to spend Mardi Gras in Louisiana since I was a little kid. Every year, I spend the holiday in places where people just don’t understand the holiday.

“Right, isn’t today the day where people get drunk and girls show their boobs?” -Every northerner I’ve ever met.

This morning alone I’ve seen several northerners (des Américains) try to give their take on how to celebrate the day. From feast menus that worry a little too much about the texture of gumbo, and turn king cake into something that looks like it would be served at a child’s birthday party, to vegan po’ boys, My day has already come with it’s share of northern aggression.

So let me tell you what Mardi Gras means to me:

Mardi Gras is the season, the day, the spirit, that brings all kinds of people together during one of the leanest times of the year. It’s a time when barriers get broken down and folks can look at each other is equals. Mardi Gras is when communities come together, so, naturally, food is essential to this holiday.

Courirs de Mardi Gras are held this time of year: a few folks run from house to house in their neighborhood or town, collecting ingredients for a gumbo from every house. One person might give a chicken, another the onions, somebody else volunteers their pot. At the end of the courir, everybody gets together and shares a meal. Gumbo, too, is such a communal dish anyway, I think the only folks who really stress about the texture of the okra used in it (if any is used at all– Creole gumbo typically leaves it out) are folks serving it in restaurants. At a courir, nobody is going to send back their bowl of gumbo because they’re not used to the texture of okra.

The king cake is a mainstay of Mardi Gras parties, helping to bring an air of egalitarianism to the groups if people gathered to celebrate. It’s often suggested that whoever finds the baby in the king cake is supposed to throw the next party (Mardi Gras is a season, y’all, not just one day; folks have a lot of opportunities to return the favor of playing host). The king cake relies on traditions of openness, of inviting people into your home no matter what you have or don’t have. Mardi Gras is about bringing what you’ve got to the table, and mixing it with everybody else’s something.

At the very least, that’s Mardi Gras at its best.

There’s a whole history of elitism, classism, and racism tied to the holiday. But since folks in Louisiana started celebrating the days between the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, just about everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, has found a way to get in on the action. Look at the history of the Mardi Gras Indians. Hell, look at the ragtag Krewe of Couche Couche out of Lafayette, Louisiana that my family has had the honor of marching in for decades.

As I took my first sips of coffee this morning I said a little prayer, “please, let northern folks leave their sensible nonsense behind today and find some joy.” Now more than ever I think we need to be able to smile at strangers on the street, offer up a little of the good inside us. We need to find ways to sing and dance and laugh even when the world around us is bleak. That’s what folks do in Lousiana. When things look dark, they light the world with their joy. That, to me, means choosing constantly to engage with the world in joy and love in spite of what anybody says. I don’t think that’s such a silly or frivolous notion; I think it’s necessary of any of us are going to survive to a ripe old age.

 

If you’d like to try some more traditional Louisiana recipes today, here are a few:

Café Brulot 

(from Talk About Good! La Livre de la Cuisine Lafayette compiled by the Lafayette Junior League)

16 lumps sugar

12 jiggers of cognac

4 sticks cinnamon

2 twists of lemon peel

24 whole cloves

4 large twists if orange peel

10 demitasse cups strong coffee

Allow all ingredients (except coffee) to muddle 1 hour before serving. Blaze all for 1-2 minutes. Add coffee slowly. May top with whipped cream if desired after serving.

 

Momma’s Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

(A family recipe)

1 cup all purpose flour

1 cup vegetable oil

2 bell peppers (whatever color strikes your fancy), chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 (5 pound) chicken, cut into serving pieces

1 pound smoked sausage

2 ½ quarts of water

2 bay leaves

Tony Cachere’s (a Creole seasoning mix) to taste

Heat oil in a stockpot over medium heat, add flour and stir until the roux is a dark brown. Add onions, bell peppers, and garlic, and continue to stir for 1 minute. Next add the water, bay leaves, chicken, and a healthy sprinkling of Tony Cachere’s. Bring to a slow boil and let simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and tasting to make sure it is properly seasoned. After 30 minutes have past, skim the fat off the top of the gumbo and add the sausage. Cook for another 30 minutes or more, until the gumbo has reduced by at least one third. Continue skimming fat off the top as it cooks. Serve over rice and chow down!

Note: While some might consider this sacrilege, you can buy a pre-roasted chicken from the grocery store, shred it, and use that instead of a raw chicken. I often do this so I don’t have to worry about bones in my gumbo.

Southern Living also has some great links to king cake recipes and more on their website. Please, whatever you do, don’t build your king cake like a birthday cake, they’re not the same thing even if your birthday happens to fall on Mardi Gras this year!!!

Joyeux Mardi Gras et laissez le bon temp rouler!

 

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