For a holiday dedicated to feasting, it seems fitting that Mardi Gras’ hallmark foods and beverages channel their own storied traditions. The cornerstone foods of New Orleans’ carnival celebrations surpass beignets and po’boys, and stretch deeper into the communities’ roots, revealing stories of foods’ availability, Catholic traditions, and French influence. While some foods and drinks may spring to mind when thinking of a Mardi Gras-themed menu, each holds a prominent place in New Orleans culture and how the holiday became an established event in the South.
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Mardi Gras wouldn’t be complete without libations, and few drinks represent the Big Easy better than a sazerac. Its storied history credits Aaron Bird for first serving a cocktail made with Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac at his New Orleans-based bar in the 1850s. The drink included bitters from the local apothecary, owned by Antoine Amedie Peychaud (see where we’re going here?). Not too long after, the phylloxera epidemic wiped out many European vineyards, and the sazerac turned to rye whiskey in the place of cognac.
The Tennessee-made snack cake gained popularity at Mardi Gras parades as a signature throw into the crowd. The tradition started in Mobile, Alabama, during the 1950s and quickly took hold in other communities around northwest Florida, Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, and select western Louisiana parishes. After all, parade attendees under imbibing age should get an indulgent Fat Tuesday, too—what better to do the trick than a chocolate-coated sugar bomb?
The king cake prevails as the sweet most commonly associated with Mardi Gras—what could scream FESTIVE louder than the brilliant coating of purple, green, and gold sprinkles? However, the glittering, cinnamon-sugar cake sold in most bakeries and available for mail order today is an evolution of the French galette du rois. The rustic, puff pastry tart encases a frangipane filling between flaky layers of dough and before coating it in a generous dusting of powdered sugar. Rich, yet understated, we love a slice of this with a cup of chicory coffee.
As a staple in the Cajun diet, crawfish season begins in February, and the first boils occur to christen the carnival season. Thanks to various outdoor cooking methods and the accessibility of crawfish, the crawfish boil offered a fast way to feed a crowd during Mardi Gras gatherings. You can make a feast to cover tabletops with the crustacean, potatoes, and corn, or, for smaller households, a sheet-pan dinner channels Cajun flavor and spirit, but on a slightly scaled down version.
On the flip side of indulgent New Orleans-based cuisine are vegetarian, everyday recipes that prove pittance can still taste delicious. Following Mardi Gras, gumbo z’herbes is the vegetarian alternative to traditional gumbo and is consumed during Lent. It’s made with about a dozen or so different greens (also known as green gumbo), with an exception for Holy Thursdays when it could also include meat. Feel free to use whatever greens you have on hand, but a rich, flavorful stock is key.
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