Meatless Monday, Phat Tuesday
They’re cooking up vats of gumbo right now in New Orleans, they’ve sold countless King Cakes and made a profusion of pralines and it all reaches critical mass at Mardi Gras.
French for Fat Tuesday, it’s not just cheap beads and anonymous orgying (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday, when Catholics begin the Lenten 40 days of penance, prayer and cleansing before Easter. Traditionally, Mardi Gras was a night of eating rich food, the better to endure the lean days of Lent. New Oreans embraced the concept with typical passion. Somehow, the custom evolved into partying, drinking and eating dirty rice — none of which is exactly sanctioned by the Catholic Church.
Clearly, New Orleans has its own way of doing things. The locals live by the city’s motto, laissez les bon temps rouller — let the good times roll — and it comes through in their food. Like every region, New Orleans has its own cuisine shaped by what grows there, but also by the people who live there.
Brad and Angelina and their brood may have brought the paparazzi to NOLA, but the centuries-old city’s spicy mix of Cajun, Creole and French took the abundant local ingredients, including rice, chilis, greens, okra, mirliton (chayote) and created its cuisine. These people make food that cooks, and they’re proud of it. You can’t get a fast food burger at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, but you can get New Orleans specialties like red beans and rice, crowder peas and okra and chili and mint-infused stir-fries and salads, a culinary contibution from the new guys in New Orleans, the Vietnamese.
Food helped unite the city after Hurricane Katrina wiped it out in 2005. Local chef John Besh lost his home and his restaurants but dished out red beans and rice to refugees and relief workers. New Orleans native Richard McCarthy rebuilt Crescent City Farmers Market, now a city-wide, three-day market with local growers and vendors grossing $9 million a year. The city’s Vietnamese community lost their homes and home vegetable gardens, so they created what is now a flourishing 28-acre community garden to grow bitter melon, Malabar spinach and other beloved crops they brought from Asia. They’re adding their own layer of culture, tradition and taste to the city. They party at Mardi Gras but they also celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese new year.
What New Orleans grows, what it cooks comes from love and what Besh calls “an act of stewardship.” Everyone’s got a personal stake in this.
Food goes beyond the plate. There’s its traditions, how its sourced, its romance and history, the powerful associations it evokes. You can’t eat these things and yet they deepen your experience and appreciation of food. They add their own spice. They make you care. So you can forgive the Mardi Gras madness in the French because you know everything will be made lovingly, locally, traditionally and liberally seasoned with joy. Food at its source tastes of the spirit of a place and in New Orleans, that means laissez les bon temps rouller.