Next Wednesday at 12 a.m., street sweepers and police in New Orleans’ French Quarter will send any last revelers home, presumably to promptly begin a solemn Lent, but until then, there’s still plenty of Mardi Gras to be had here in Southern Louisiana.
The tradition of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) was born from the Catholic’s need to rid one’s household of all the lovely treats they will be forgoing during their 40 days of Lenten devotion. And well, it would be wasteful to just chuck it all, right? So, I mean, what else can we do? We have to eat it. I remember a priest at an Ash Wednesday service once beginning his homily by asking the congregation, “Did you finish all your cookies and ice cream last night?”
In the New Orleans area, however, we don’t limit our binging to one day. Carnival season begins on January 6th, Epiphany—the feast that marks the three kings visit to the baby Jesus and the revelation that He is the son of God, incarnate. It is at this time, that as you walk into grocery stores, you are greeted with ample displays of king cakes—and the smell. Oh, the smell! Cinnamon and yeast and sugar. It’s hard to believe that anyone can get out of those places without buying some. The truth is, most people don’t. This time of year, king cakes are ubiquitous. People bring them to work, to soccer games for team snack, or, if they’re like me, buy one slice telling themselves that this is the only piece they will have all season. Just to try a little, to have a taste. The problem with this strategy is that there are approximately a gazillion flavors of king cake, so having a taste of one kind really just gets me thinking about what the other ones might be like. The traditional recipe features cinnamon woven through a sweet, buoyant dough topped with white icing and sprinkled with sparkling crunchy sugars in the traditional colors of New Orleans Mardi Gras—green (representing faith), purple (justice) and gold (power). There is also a little plastic baby included in the box to be inserted somewhere in the cake, the receiver of which is called upon to buy the next cake—whether its next year or the next day. I don’t know when someone decided that offering a cream cheese filled option would be a good idea, but it has not stopped there. There’s chocolate, pecan praline, Bavarian cream, many, many different kinds of fruit, and probably others of which I am unaware. There are so many choices that there are usually one or two people hovering around a display trying to find a box with the right kind of filling checked off on its label. There is a certain kind of camaraderie to be found in the hunting of king cake—trading smiles, helping others find their desired treat, conversing about the overload of calories to which we will soon be subjecting our bodies—not to mention the ensuing sugar shock.
This is only my second Mardi Gras in Southern Louisiana, but I’ve already grown to love it. In the grey days of January, when people are taking down their Christmas stuff, they are also putting up joyful, flashy Mardi Gras decorations. Landscapers put in Mardi Gras colored pansies. (People in the northeast, please don’t throw snowballs at me.) And there is a sense of anticipation in the air. The closer it gets to Lent, the more parades are on offer—not just in New Orleans, but all over the area. Last year I went to one actually on Mardi Gras in a neighboring town. It rained on nearly everyone’s parade that day and, for the area, was cold as well, so a lot of people stayed away, making our booty of throws that much larger.
Throws are objects that people on floats send sailing out into the spectators. Beads are probably the most common, but they can be almost anything—plastic cups, candy, moon pies, stuffed animals. Last year, my niece snagged a plastic crab and a tiara. It was a fun day.
I’m excited to go again this year, even though the weather report is again promising chilly, rainy weather (in any case, I know it will be better than a snow storm), because Mardi Gras here holds a spirit of irreverence (like a huge, plastic king cake baby tied to the front of a pick-up truck) and unbridled joy (marching bands and dancers soaked to the skin, and still working it) that permeate the air as surely as the aroma of freshly baked king cake.
Happy Mardi Gras and Blessed Lent to everyone who partakes of them. Please remember that I am cutting the cord with FeedBurner in the coming weeks, so, if you haven’t already, please be sure to sign-up for email updates on the site if you still want to keep getting them. 🙂