Happy Fat Tuesday everyone! Are you wearing purple, gold, and green; donning beads and boas; marching in or watching a parade; and eating King Cake? If you’re in or from Louisiana probably so, as today is a very festive day, especially in New Orleans. But all partying aside, both Mardi Gras and New Orleans are religious in origin and historically blessed, respectively. Today it’s all Mardi Gras and King Cake but tomorrow we’ll visit NOLA, a city that has so much more to offer than its “Big Sleazy” reputation. Let’s go!
Mardi Gras is really just today and despite its party reputation, it has a religious origin. Also known as Fat Tuesday, it is always the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Many people (me included) confuse Mardi Gras with Carnival, which is the celebratory season that stretches from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday. Rewind here a bit. The Christian Feast of the Epiphany is also the 12th day of Christmas and marks the day when the Three Wise Men/Three Kings arrived in Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. For those in places like New Orleans, it also marks the official end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Carnival season.
The French come into heavy play here as “mardi” means Tuesday in French and “gras” means fat. Many believe the first documented Mardi Gras celebration in America was in March of 1699 when French explorers traveled to America and docked near what is now New Orleans. They named their docking location “Point du Mardi Gras” and as other French immigrants arrived, Mardi Gras celebrations became increasingly popular. Until, that is, the Spanish took control of the Crescent City in 1762 and outlawed Mardi Gras celebrations. But, when Louisiana became a state in 1812, Mardi Gras celebrations returned and really never left. In fact, since what many consider the first NOLA Mardi Gras parade in 1827, there’s been a parade in the city every year since. Pending perhaps a pesky pandemic. Parades are back in full force this year though!
Mardi Gras and accompanying Carnival are celebrated all over the world, including well-known festivities in Brazil and Venice but rest assured New Orleans ranks right up there. Fat Tuesday may be all about indulging in everything festive, fun, and frivolous but there’s a reason for that too. It’s the day before Ash Wednesday, which is when Lent starts. Traditionally Lent is a period of 40 days of fasting and giving up bad and questionable habits as well as focusing on doing good. Today’s the day to get it all out of your system for the next 40 days!
A big part of Mardi Gras is the famous King Cake, which, behind maybe birthday and wedding cakes, is considered the king of all cakes. So what is it with those colorful confections and is there really a baby inside each one? The answer is traditionally yes, and they too have a religious significance. Remember, all this Carnival and Mardi Gras celebration relates back to Epiphany, when the Three Kings traveled to see the newly born baby Jesus. This, my friends, is why the dessert is called a “King Cake” and why there’s a tiny baby hidden inside each one.
Francophiles will also be glad to hear that the beloved King Cake is said to have been brought to America from France in the 1870s and are traditionally oval-shaped, which some say represents the unity of faiths while others say represents a king’s crown. Cakes in New Orleans are decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold…the same colors you’ll find those famous beads in. The colors represent, in order, justice, faith, and power.
Funny thing is, many a King Cake is not actually a cake. Some are more bread-like while others resemble a pastry. Whatever they’re made of, they are always colorful and festive. The standard Louisiana version is a brioche-like dough swirled with cinnamon and cream cheese then braided and baked in a circle or oval shape and finished with icing and sprinkles. In France, a “galette des rois” or “cake of kings,” is more of a puffed pastry with a sweet almond filling and garnished with “jewels” like sprinkles and icing. Those in Spain and Latin America enjoy orange-flavored bread wreaths topped with dried fruit, which they call “roscas de reyes” or “cakes of kings.”
Okay, but what about that baby. As I said, it traditionally symbolizes Jesus although some cakes will have money or a trinket inside. Whoever finds one in their slice is crowned “king for the day” and vows to provide the next king cake and host the next party…whoever hosts a Mardi Gras party buys or makes the King Cake for it. It’s also considered good luck to find it and this “you’re next” tradition ensures celebrations continue in true New Orleans style.
Speaking of New Orleans style, it’s customary to also spend today cooking and indulging in traditional Cajun and Creole dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and etoufee. Do you know the differences? Do you know the history? You will tomorrow!
So there you have it and now you know all about Mardi Gras and King Cake. Tomorrow as we start Lent, we’ll visit New Orleans. At least on this blog. Rendez-vous alors!