“I started making calls a week after Katrina. The captains all said the same thing: you can take away our homes, but you can’t take away our Mardi Gras.”–Arthur Hardy
In times of excess, New Orleans Mardi Gras can seem like an overheated technicolor celebration of vulgarity; tourists “earning” shiny plastic beads after indulging in ephemeral acts of fleshy exhibitionism, frenzied epidemics of public intoxication followed by frequent outbreaks of petty (and not so petty) crime.
But in fact, the history of the Mardi Gras season reveals a hidden complexity that belies any surface gaudiness.
The first festival in Louisiana was held in 1699, a time when the word “fat” in Fat Tuesday conjured up hopeful images of hard-won prosperity and bountiful plenty in the face of adversity and the word “waste” was nearly a synonym for sin.
As it says on Wikipedia’s Soul Food Page:
“Slave owners fed their chattel as cheaply as possible, often with throwaway foods from the plantation, forcing slaves to make do with the ingredients at hand. In slave households, vegetables were the tops of turnips and beets and dandelions. Soon, slaves were cooking with new types of greens: collards, kale, cress, mustard, and pokeweed. They also developed recipes which used lard; cornmeal; and offal, discarded cuts of meat such as pigs’ feet, oxtail, ham hocks, chitterlings (pig small intestines), pig ears, hog jowls, tripe and skin…Leftover fish became croquettes (by adding an egg, cornmeal or flour, seasonings which were breaded and deep-fried). Stale bread became bread pudding, and each part of the pig had its own special dish. Even the liquid from cooked greens, called potlikker, was consumed as a type of gravy, or drink.”
After slavery was abolished, one of the many methods the former slaves relied on to help them extend their still meager rations were family and community potlucks and gatherings; so Mardi Gras meals naturally reflected the resourceful practice.
Members of the African American community would gather together to contribute to a seafood and/or meat based communal gumbo, made with a delicious okra soup stock to be ladled over waiting bowls of fragrant rice.
Since Louisiana is a former French colony, gumbo is inspired by the classic French soup, bouillabaisse but is said to take its name from the African Bantu word for okra, which is often used to thicken the stew.
Surprisingly enough, Mardi Gras festival traditions sometimes function to upend of everyday customs and habits and even the social order.
Although the concept of the Mardi Gras ball and the krewes that organize them is based on the exclusive fetes popular with the French nobility at the time New Orleans was founded, many Carnival balls today have a decidedly more democratic (and ironic) flavor than the original ones that inspired them.
As it says on this page about Louisiana history and trivia:
“All who attend the Mardi Gras Royal Ball must bow to Rex, the (make-believe) King of the Mardi Gras, and his queen in a mockery of court customs…In 1950 when Rex, the King of the Mardi Gras heard that Edward VIII, the once King of England, and the Duke of Windsor would be attending the ball, he worried who should bow to whom? His worries were over when the duke graciously bowed to the Mardi Gras monarch and the duchess curtsied before the enthroned Carnival king and queen.”
Taking an even more elastic and humorous view on monarchy, the Elvis Krewe is an internet based parade marching group that was founded to celebrate all things 50’s and Elvis from beehive wearing donut shop waitresses to Elvis clones singing Blue Hawaii. Membership is available to anyone on the internet and their motto is, “Everyone’s the King.”
One ultra exclusionary group remains though; the Barkus Krewe which coordinates a special Mardi Gras Parade by and for dogs to raise money and awareness for humane societies and shelters.
Sometimes all that glitters is gold.
Here’s some Mardi Gras friendly recipes to help put you in the mood:
Please join us tomorrow to read our new article, Find Out More About the 2009 James Beard Award Nominated Restaurants in Your Area.
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