It's called "Fat Tuesday" for a reason. "Mardi Gras is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and it's tradition to celebrate as much as you can before Lent begins and you give up meat or anything else you might deprive yourself of," says Patricia Gay, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center in New Orleans. By "celebrate," she means indulge in everything from king cakes to crawfish étouffée. If you want to get the most out of the Mardi Gras season, eat your way through Fat Tuesday with traditional cuisine from the city that made the day famous, New Orleans.
"Nobody in New Orleans enjoys a Hurricane – unless it’s the bright red variety served in a tall glass and garnished with orange slices and cherries," says New Orleans official tourism site, NewOrleansOnline.com. The fruity rum drink was made famous at Pat O'Briens bar in the French Quarter, where it was named after the glass it was served in and the resemblance to hurricane lamps. "Be sure to exercise caution – while these drinks are sugary-sweet, they pack a category-5 punch," NewOrleansOnline says.
From January 6 to Ash Wednesday, king cakes are baked and eaten around the clock. During the pre-Lent season, it's perfectly acceptable to eat king cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "Children start having king cakes from the time they're born," Gay says. "There are all different kinds of king cakes, but it's all connected to the Mardi Gras celebration and everything leading up to it." There's also a tradition that goes along with the cake. "Every king cake has a little plastic baby inside it," Gay says. "Whoever gets the little baby provides the next king cake."
"Gumbo has come to be one of the best examples of the multicultural melting pot that has made New Orleans what it is," says NewOrleansOnline.com. "It can be described as a type of stew served over rice, but locals would argue that gumbo is almost its own food group." In it, you can find everything from okra to sausage to hot sauce. As there is no one right way to make it, there are as many gumbo recipes as there are kitchen-savvy New Orleanians.
"Every nation seems to have a rice dish," Gay says. "Jambalaya is our rice dish, similar, in a way, to paella." Jambalaya is a hodgepodge of meats, vegetables and rice, cooked slightly differently depending on if you're making Creole or Cajun jambalaya (the former is the most common and includes tomatoes). It's one of the simpler Louisiana dishes to prepare because, unlike with gumbo, the rice is cooked in the same pot with everything else.
Red Beans and Rice
In the earlier days of New Orleans, Mondays used to be wash day, and that meant red beans and rice. When the women of New Orleans were doing the laundry, they would put a pot of red beans on the stove to cook, usually with the bone of the ham that was eaten the night before. "In most cities, Monday is known as the dreaded day when the weekend has ended and the workweek has begun," NOO says. "In New Orleans, locals know they can always look forward to one very tasty Monday tradition – red beans and rice."
Étouffée (pronounced eh-too-fey) means "to smother" in French, and that is exactly what crawfish étouffée is. It's a thick stew, made with crawfish (shrimp is substituted during the crawfish off-season), smothered in a seasoned roux and served over rice.
The "Po-Boy" was born during the transit strike of 1929. As the city of New Orleans rallied behind its workers, Bennie and Clovis Martin, streetcar conductors turned coffee shop owners, teamed up with baker John Gendusa and developed a 40-inch sandwich that they gave away to the "poor boy" strikers for free. Even though the strike eventually ended, the sandwich lived on. "The sandwich is as diverse as the city it symbolizes," said Michael Mizell-Nelson of the University of New Orleans History Department. "The crisp loaves have served as a culinary crossroads, encasing the most pedestrian and exotic of foods: shrimp, oyster, catfish and soft-shell crabs, as well as french fries and ham and cheese. Comfort food in other cities seldom reaches such heights."
The beignet is the state doughnut of New Orleans, but "instead of being dough with a hole in it, it's dough that is cut into rectangles," Gay says. "It's then thrown into grease and covered with lots of powdered sugar, so when you eat it, you get lots of powdered sugar all over yourself. But that's part of the experience."