Last year, I wrote a fairly popular article about Mardi Gras. In it, I talked about the HBO series Treme, my attraction to the city of New Orleans, the history of Mardi Gras celebrations there, and the story of my first attempt at making a New Orleans King Cake. It was really quite informative and pretty entertaining. (In case you missed it, that was a plug for you to go read it. Go ahead … you can get to it from here.) The article got a lot of hits this Mardi Gras season, too, apparently from people searching for the correct way to pronounce “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” — that infamous Cajun expression that absolutely no one says in France … except for Americans!
To be honest, last year’s attempt at making a New Orleans King Cake here in France bore almost no resemblance to the real thing. Since we didn’t have an oven, we had to depend on the local bakery for our brioche, and they just don’t make brioche here in Paris in the form of a ring or crown. On top of that, we couldn’t find colored sugar or the right food colorings at the local supermarket, so we improvised with candied fruit. And in place of the little plastic Baby Jesus, we used a ceramic Virgin Mary, the fève from one of our several galettes des rois from the Epiphany season. The result — as delicious as it most certainly was — looked more like a shrine to Our Lady of Candy Land than a King Cake.
January 6 is Epiphany, the Christian holiday that commemorates the visitation of the Magi (the Three Wise Men, or the Three Kings) to the Baby Jesus. I’m not going to get into a long discourse on the theological meaning of the festival, but I do want to share with you its culinary meaning …
About a week ago, I stumbled upon Tremé, an HBO series set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It’s the story of several New Orleanians struggling to rebuild their lives after the catastrophe. On a grander scale, it paints a poignant picture of a unique culture determined to preserve itself against the odds. In a few days’ time, I had already watched the entire first season; I hadn’t felt such an immediate attraction to a television series in a very long time, and I simply couldn’t stop watching it. The music and the scenery brought back memories of my first and only visit to New Orleans a few years after the hurricane, and I decided that I needed to see it again one day and show its magic to Michel.
And, of course, all this happened in the days leading right up to Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday,” is a Christian holiday marking the end of the season of Epiphany and the beginning of the season of self-sacrifice called Lent (or Carême, in French). It’s the culmination of Carnival season, when you’re expected to indulge (notably in fatty foods—hence the name) in advance of the solemn season that follows. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans—whether at Carnival season or even in November—you know that no one does decadence quite like the Crescent City : think shrimp po’ boys and spicy gumbo, warm beignets dusted with powdered sugar at Café du Monde, and Hurricanes in go-cups.
But why does New Orleans indulge so well? Perhaps it’s because the city can trace its very origins—however tenuously—back to Mardi Gras :