America’s most famous carnival, Mardi Gras, will be celebrated on Feb. 25 this year. The occasion, whose name is French for “fat Tuesday,” began as a last-gasp bacchanal before the temporary fasting and other sacrifices of the Lenten season, which begins the following day, Ash Wednesday. The Catholic Church traditionally discouraged the consumption of meat and the enjoyment of sexual relations throughout Lent, the 40-day stretch leading up to Easter Sunday, so revelers wanted to have as much fun as possible the day before it began.
In fact, the first Mardi Gras on American shores, which was probably celebrated around the turn of the 18th century, didn’t even take place in New Orleans — which wasn’t founded until 1718 — but in Mobile, Alabama. That’s just one of the things you may not know about Mardi Gras.
Today, Mardi Gras in the Crescent City — a nickname bestowed because the original settlement, now known as the French Quarter, was built around a sharp curve in the Mississippi River — is one of the world’s great public parties. More than a million people — roughly three-and-a-half times the city’s population — take part in the celebration each year. There are masquerade balls, dance parties, and parades, complete with ornate floats built by the social clubs called krewes, marching bands, and frolicking dancers in elaborate costumes throwing colored beads and faux-gold coins into the crowds.
And, as always in New Orleans, there is food and drink galore. In the Big Easy that food is often Creole or Cajun or a combination of the two. What’s the difference? The easy way to define them, though it’s an oversimplification, is to say that Creole is city cooking while Cajun is country fare.
Creole has a strong French influence along with accents from Italy, Spain, and elsewhere. It is often based on seafood and uses a lot of tomatoes. Cajun has French roots, too, but is more meat-centered (though freshwater crayfish — or crawfish — are beloved) and arguably more closely related to non-Louisianan Southern food. Tomatoes are in short supply.
Iconic New Orleans dishes include gumbo, a thick stew involving various kinds of seafood and often chicken and/or sausage in a spicy sauce; jambalaya, a relative of paella; red beans and rice (just what it sounds like, usually with sausage added); and the po-boy (or po’boy) sandwich, a New Orleans version of the sub.
One item served only around Mardi Gras season is king cake, a coffee-cake-like confection frosted in yellow, green, and purple (the traditional Mardi Gras colors), with a tiny plastic baby baked into the dough. Whoever finds the infant in his or her slice is supposed to buy the next cake or throw a party for the other diners.
The best place to eat New Orleans specialties, of course, is in the city itself. With good reason, it is consistently ranked as one of America’s best food cities.
There are many New Orleans-themed or Cajun and/or Creole restaurants in other parts of the country, though. 24/7 Tempo has identified two dozen of the best — the ones most convincingly evocative of the Big Easy’s culinary spirit.
Most of these restaurants observe Mardi Gras one way or another every year, with everything from food and drink specials to music and other entertainment, but many haven’t yet announced the particulars for 2020. Even if no special celebrations are planned, though, every one of these places is guaranteed to get you into the Mardi Gras spirit.