Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING:  I know, dear readers - it's unusual for us to have two chats back-to-back! But today is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Carnival, Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, and I really wanted everyone to have a chance to share their memories of celebration.
Like Hallowe'en, Mardi Gras is a festival that's been pretty thoroughly separated from its religious origins.  In medieval Europe, it was a time to be shriven (go to confession, which for many was a once-a-year thing) and then to enjoy all the foods that would be forbidden during the coming forty days of Lent: meat, eggs and dairy products. People then and now, however, rarely turn down the chance to get their party on, so Shrove Tuesday expanded from a day, to a week, to a month in some spots, with activities from the always-popular pancake eating to parades to blackout drinking. Its popularity has only increased in the past few decades, becoming, like Halloween, an excuse for a raucous adult fling.
My most, shall we say, celebratory Mardi Gras were in Washington, DC, where I went to grad school and had my first adult job. DC, land of universities, internships, and glamourous low-paying government positions, has an enormous number of young, single adults, and any holiday that can be celebrated with Jello shots inevitably leads to teeming masses filling the streets of Georgetown. One year, I recall a great deal of singing and dancing followed by a trip beneath a flaming limbo pole set up (utterly illegally, I'm sure) in the back garden of someone's group house. In my memory, I limbo'd beneath it with great agility; I suspect in reality it was more of a stagger and crawl before getting poured into a taxi in the wee hours of the morning.
Nowadays, it's all about the pancakes, as my church has a pancake supper followed by a Dixieland Jazz performance every Shrove Tuesday. We have a nice time chatting, it raises money for the youth group, and we're all home abed by nine. Sigh. I never made it to the most famous celebration in the US, New Orleans' Mardi Gras, and I fear that time has passed. The thought of spending vacation time being kept awake by noisy drunk twenty-somethings has lost its appeal.

How about you, Reds? Do you have any memories, bacchanalian or benign, of Mardi Gras?
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I have to admit the holiday was only something on the periphery of life until a few years ago, when we discovered the Hubby's father's side of the family is Creole and from New Orleans. So, now in our house it's all great music, great food—crab ettoufée, sazeracs, and King cake—and some second line dancing after dinner with the newly found cousins. Good times! And it must end at midnight _exactly_.
RHYS BOWEN: When I was growing up we always had pancakes on what was called Pancake Day in England. Thin crepes cooked in butter, drizzled with lemon and sprinkled with sugar. Fabulous. It was the only time in the year we had pancakes. For some reason my mother thought it was not right to make them any other time. When I moved to the US and found I could have crepes every Sunday for breakfast--Freedom!!

But I've always wanted to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Maybe some year I'll get around to it.

HALLIE EPHRON: I hate crowds and I hate drunks. I could get into the food and the beads, I suppose.
LUCY BURDETTE: Tee hee, Hallie, you make me chuckle. I think we would all enjoy the party that Susan is having! The food sounds wonderful. I did go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans one year when I was in graduate school. We borrowed the department's research Winnebago and drove over from Gainesville. (Or was it just a psychology conference but it felt like Mardi Gras?) Anyway, we had a blast. Though there was an incident involving the sheering off of the window on the roof of the RV. I don't believe they loaned it out to graduate students after that...
DEBORAH CROMBIE: I have absolutely no Mardi Gras cred. None. I have been to New Orleans, but not since I was a teenager with parents. No partying... I've had pancake suppers on Shrove Tuesday, but it's not a tradition for us.  Does having seen The Big Easy count?

(I want to have Susan's party!)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Coming to Susan's! But going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras...yeesh. I love coffee and beignets--can we go with that?

JULIA: Clearly, the Reds need to make a non-Mardi Gras trip either to Susan's or to New Orleans to enjoy the fabulous food sans college students. But for the part day itself...Carnival in Rio, anyone?

How about you, dear readers? What are your Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras experiences? Tell us all, and laissez les bon temps rouler!


  1. Mardi Gras in New Orleans . . . the first things that immediately come to mind are the noise and the huge crowd, so many people that it is hard to even walk down the sidewalk.
    We were in New Orleans for a conference . . . my only other clear memory of the Mardi Gras doings are of a parade and the folks on the floats throwing either beads or candies to the crowd. Everywhere we went it was loud and the crowds were just oppressive; I have absolutely no desire to try it again.
    I guess I'm much more in tune with the Shrove Tuesday pancake supper. But I'm in agreement with Hank when it comes to the beignets and coffee . . . .

  2. I grew up in South Louisiana so I know about Mardi Gras. The massive crowds you see on TV happen for the big krewes in the city, and you will only encounter drunken crowds roaming the streets if you go to those streets. It is certainly possible to stand on the balcony of a hotel room on Bourbon Street--provided you inherit a reservation.

    Many neighborhoods have smaller scale parades that are family friendly, full of food and nice people, and no drunks. People invite family and friends, they cook a vat of red beans or jambalaya on a burner on the front porch, or they have an open door to the kitchen. It's like everyone is having a family reunion on the same day, and there's a parade outside.

    There are truck parades, dog parades, drag parades, horseback parades, you name it. Outside of the city, every little town has a parade. I've been watching Facebook postings of my hometown's parade, which I marched in in junior high in the band, and feeling very nostalgic. It helps that my mother mailed us a king cake last week. (Pecan praline filling this time.)

    Please don't think Mardi Gras is only the crowded, crazy, drunken spectacle. For most natives, it is a cherished family tradition. You'll see everyone from great-grandmas to newborns to the local priest together on the sidewalk, decked out in tacky clothes and sprawled on a lawn chair, sharing food and catching throws and passing a good time. If you want to experience a safe and sane Mardi Gras, it is very possible.

  3. I had no idea you were supposed to eat pancakes! But as a freshly minted 17-year-old, I hadn't been in Brazil even a month when Carnaval happened. And what an introduction. It was a three-day party with my exchange family and the rest of the city. I saw the drunken uncle go off with who knows who, and even the staid doctor father of the family was smiling and dancing. No beads, but the best samba music you can imagine. That summer (winter down there) when Brazil won the World Cup with Pele, we got another couple of days of a Carnaval-like celebration. Fabulous.

    For years after I got back, I searched out Brazilian Carnaval parties - at UCLA, and even in Tokyo, after which I took home a cute Basque guy.

    But I like Ramona's description of everyone having a family reunion on the same day, plus a parade!

  4. Tomorrow morning I'll receive my annual phone call from New Orleans: "Mom, I'm alive, and I'm back in class."

    Laissez les bon temps rouler!

  5. No crowds and no drunks for me either. But a nice get together sounds great.

    I usually manage to snag a paczki (pronounced "poonch-key") from a local bakery. It's a Polish pastry that is traditional around this time of year - think giant glazed donut filled with goodness. But this year, it looks like I'll be celebrating with tea & honey, throat lozenges, and decongestant. Oh well.

  6. In Milwaukee-- with its large population of Polish heritage-- today's Fat Tuesday obsession is paczki (pronounced POONshki). Basically, they are frosted jelly doughnuts (most often filled with prune paste or lemon curd or raspberry jam) made to use up oil and eggs before Lent.

    Despite the subzero temperatures, people were lined up this morning at National Bakery (in the old Polish neighborhood), where purportedly one can get the best paczki in the city. You won't find me there, though-- I've never liked jelly doughnuts.

    I've tried them, though, in the interest of science and as part of my job as a food writer, but I always find myself disappointed. I've even used my AARP free Dunkin' Donuts doughnut (for those of us of a certain age, a doughnut is free with a medium or large drink) to try their jelly doughnuts. Not my thing.

    Interestingly, jelly doughnuts are also big in Israel for Chanukah (November or December) which is a holiday that's all about oil. They call them sufgananiya.

    Still not my thing. If I go to National Bakery (in warmer weather) it's for their mile-high lemon meringue pie. (The lines for those are long the day before Thanksgiving. I go when it isn't a holiday-- in my opinion, any day's a holiday when there's a lemon meringue pie!)

  7. Joan: soul sister. Ramona: I think maybe you have to live there to appreciate it because what you describe sounds great.
    Edith: I'm with you on the pancakes.
    Paczki! I'm mad for good jelly doughnuts. I milwaukee! Who knew?

  8. Never been to Mardi Gras, although a good friend lives in NOLA and has invited me a couple of times. Someday, I hope to go, especially since I know four people now who ride, on Muses, Nyx, and the Underwear krewes.

    However, we did go there this past November, for the St. Catherine's Day parade (that my friend got started), and we stayed for Thanksgiving. And were introduced to Sazeracs. Oh, my. We liked them so well that we had some on New Year's Eve!

  9. sadly, I have not participated in Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans or elsewhere, nor did I have knowledge of Pancake Day, which is something I could really get on board with. I have bought a King cake and served it, which was fun, finding the baby hidden in it. I think that Mardi Gras in NOLA is a young person's game, although Ramnoa's description of families sharing it sounds lovely.

    I have never even been to New Orleans, which is why I am so excited that the 2016 Bouchercon is going to be there. I can't wait!

    Now, Edith, could we hear a little more about that cute Basque guy?

  10. I've never participated in anything related to Mardi Gras. Well, there is a 5K I've run here in town a couple of times, but that's it.

  11. Ramona, those family and neighborhood festivals sound wonderful! I wonder if the type of celebration for this day splits along climatological lines, with northern Europe (and the northern United States) staying inside and eating pancakes and paczki and people in warmer southern climes heading outside for parades and parties.

    It's snowing again here in Nantucket. The thought of a holiday in Brazil this time next year is beginning to sound better and better...

  12. I'm with Hallie and Hank. Love Cajun/Creole food, and fortunately, we have a good restaurant for it here in KC that also has live jazz. But drunks and crowds and parades and noise, I can live without. So I'll salute you all with my beignet and chicory coffee while live jazz plays here in KC and then go home at a reasonable hour like the old fogey I've become.

  13. I'm with Ramona on this. I went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras a few years ago and had a great time without dealing with drunk college kids. I think the trick is to go with someone who has a house there and knows how to avoid the typical tourist things.
    Went to both a night time and daytime parade and the crowds were no bigger than any other parade I've ever been to. No drunks, just catching throws and having a good time. Many people have step-ladders built with seats on the top for their young children so they can see and so the people on the floats can easily hand them throws, including plush toys, which they have especially for children.
    My only advice for Mardi Gras is stay off of Bourbon Street at night. That's where the slobbering drunk college students congregate. But go to the French Quarter during the day and enjoy it. I went on the Monday before Mardi Gras and played tourist. Lots of fun.
    On Mardi Gras itself the crowds are huge, but I found the costumes so interesting that they were a small price to pay for the people watching. People start gathering at nine, so only the most dedicated of drinkers managed to get smashed before the parades start marching.
    So, there's Larry's abridged guide to Mardi Gras. I encourage everyone to try it once. I know I'd love to go back.

  14. Bouchercon in New Orleans, Sept 15-18, 2016. Chicory coffee, beignets, and beads for all!

    (Closest I've ever come is eating etouffe and jambalaya in a NW MT restaurant owned by a man from South Louisiana, underneath the watchful eye sockets of a Rocky Mtn goat skull draped in Mardi Gras beads.)

  15. I would love Ramona's Mardi Gras! A friend of our who lived in Dallas for years was a Cajun transplant, and Ramona's description made me think of Kenny's wonderful parties. And his jambalaya! Sadly for us, Kenny and Cindy have moved back to the bayou. We will have to pay a visit someday.

    SO looking forward to B'con 2016!!! And in the meantime, now I'm craving beignets. Thanks, Julia!

  16. Years ago I attended a Fasching party in Stuttgart Germany, their version of Mardi Gras. All costumes, most of which were very brief (I had a long oriental gown - overdressed!). Of course, gallons of beer and some interesting customs .....

  17. I've done Carnival in Rio! It was an amazing and crazy and decadent and dizzying experience. I lived in Brazil about the time the lambada (remember that?) had its three seconds of fame in the US. Yeah, well, let's just say that the Brazilians have sexy dancing down pat. I did the lambada a-plenty. The thing about the lambada is that you're not supposed to be touching. You're about as close as can be, gyrating your hips, without touching ... Which makes it fun instead of just a grind -- and that much sexier.

    I learned this about Carnival in Rio: The poverty-stricken people living in the favelas (slums, shanty towns) saved up their money all year long for their outrageous costumes. They lived in cardboard shacks, but you'd never know it during Carnival.

  18. I'm with Ramona on this one. I lived in NOLA for a couple of years and truly loved the whole Carnival season. My daughter was born on Jan. 6, so we've had King Cakes on her birthday for most of her life, even when we had to ship up them from Gambinos to wherever we were living at the time.

    The pre-Mardi Gras parades were always my favorite - incredibly family focused and lots of fun. There were even seats mounted on the top of step ladders (safely I promise!) so that it was easier for kids to catch the beads from the floats.

    One of my favorite pictures was taken when my son was five days old and at his first parade on St. Charles Ave about two weeks before Mardi Gras. My daughter is asleep at my feet, covered in beads and the baby sling is layered in purple, green and gold.

    I stayed largely away from the Bourbon Street chaos because it was just so removed from the celebration that I knew and loved. I did, however, manage to get three of the cherished Zulu coconuts over the years.

  19. Fasching! I had forgotten about that. Didn't we go see a Fasching parade once, mutti?

  20. Fasching ... I've always wanted to do that. We have pictures of my mom from her late 50s heyday -- so skinny and fashionable and rockin' the outfits -- at fasching. I'm thinking it was as dizzying for her and Carnival in Rio was for me. :-) (Apple doesn't fall far ... ?)

  21. I've never been to New Orleans, at this time of year or any other, but I have been up north around the time of Carnaval de Quebec (though thank goodness not this year, if it's this cold in Maine, can you even imagine Quebec City?)

    The celebration there is also tied to the coming of Lent, of course, but instead of staggering around on Bourbon Street, celebrants toboggan down a huge run outside the Chateau Frontenac, participate in ice canoe races and nighttime parades, and drink a concoction called Caribou (vodka, brandy, sherry and port) which I personally have never tried am sure it warms you right up.

  22. We have paczki here in Cincinnati, too, along with hot cross buns, another Lenten tradition. Never had pancakes, though.

  23. We moved to a NOLA suburb (Metairie) when I was in high school. The carnival season was a lot of fun. Various neighborhoods had parades on weekend afternoons that were family oriented. On the big day families stuck to St Charles Avenue and left the French Quarter to the partiers and drunks. Still remember seeing Robert Goulet as the king of the Krewe of Iris or Venus. I don't remember which women's krewe. He was close enough to touch and had the most gorgeous blue eyes! Families all had wooden step ladders with seats built on top to accomodate 2 to 3 kids. And here's a tip: if you can, stand by a group of nuns. They always get the best throws tossed to them. Mind you the last Mardi Gras I attended in NOLA was in the early 70s. Did go to a parade several years ago at Bolivar Point, Texas, across from Galveston Island. Lots of throws, families, no crowds. When we lived in Ohio, the closest we got was eating pancakes at church for Shrove Tuesday. Not quite the same mood!

  24. I too grew up in Louisiana, but was only in New Orleans for Mardi Gras twice, and both times visiting from out of state. The last time was many years ago. Looking at the hairstyles in the photos, I'm guessing mid-70's.

    The strangest thing ... it's a toss-up between the guy wearing mud and Spanish moss and the alligator in a cage being pulled down the sidewalk.