Today is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, and it is usually the occasion for the big blow out celebration to end the carnival season. This year, the parades are all canceled. No balls, no parties, no costumes, no beads, no glitter. Last year’s season turned out to be a huge super spreader event, although nobody knew it at the time. We are trying hard to prevent that this year. The hotels are mostly empty, the tourists stayed home, the police have barricaded Bourbon Street. The bars are closed. The bars. In New Orleans. Are closed.
No bloody mary breakfasts today, alas. To be honest, it is bloody cold outside, not great weather for walking around in outrageous costumes while day drinking. Perhaps nature is helping out with our efforts to stop the pandemic.
Today’s newspaper called it Flat Tuesday. Every year we love to point out that for the rest of the country, Mardi Gras is just an ordinary Tuesday. We are almost ordinary today too. Almost, but not quite. There is, of course, king cake. A friend of mine in New Jersey wrote to tell me that he had picked up a king cake in a Whole Foods up there and found it to be mediocre. Indeed, the standard issue Whole Foods king cake is mediocre, although serviceable when needed.
Whole Foods mediocre cake is similar to a lot of other mediocre king cakes that you can get at local grocery stores. There are, however, many great cakes. We bought a fabulous “Queen Cake” from the brilliant chef Chris DeBarr, who runs a pop up called “Lit Kitchen.” He describes it as “a beautiful glazed puff pastry dome holding the almost meaty buttery balanced pecan frangipane with a thin layer of tart candied kumquats that sing & pop with citrus perfumes.” Ours did not last long.
There is more. The local paper published an article recently about sixteen interesting king cakes available around town. There are glazed donut cakes, savory cakes (including the “muffuletta mambo savory king cake,” which is real even though it sounds like satire), churros king cake, berry king cakes, salted caramel king cakes, and much more. I have had cakes like these over the years and some are stunning. Eater.com also shared a story of creative cakes, focusing on five that I am pretty sure do not overlap at all with the sixteen in the other story. I have not tried any of them, not even the “purple, green, and gold ice cream king cake” from Rahm Haus, the maker of magically good ice cream.
The quality of the cakes, however, may be secondary to context. In a normal year, the last week would have been a frenzy of parties, parades, and costume making. There is not much time to cook, so we eat badly. By Mardi Gras day, king cake is breakfast, bloody marys and beer punctuate the day. We have a tradition of stopping in at the Café du Monde for beignets during the afternoon. Popeye’s fried chicken is often the last meal of the day, consumed with friends surrounded by the detritus of costumes. And of course, if there is any cake left, someone will finish it. It is not a day for healthy eating. That would be tomorrow, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. (In New Orleans, the mayor will allow the bars to reopen for Lent this year.)
Carnival in New Orleans is always inventive. This year, in lieu of parades, people have decorated their houses as house floats. There has been coverage of this in the media, so just click here and here if you want to see some photos or read more about this fantastic new tradition. At least, I hope it becomes a tradition. The residents of one block of Bell Street cooperated to decorate their houses along the theme “Belles of the Bayou,” dedicated to important women in the city’s history. These include Anne Rice, Baroness Pontalba, Mahalia Jackson, Marie Laveau and, my favorite, Leah Chase, Creole chef, civil rights activist, and wise woman of New Orleans cuisine, who passed away in 2019.
It is cold outside and there are no parades. However, there is cake, beer, fried chicken, and stunning creativity. Flat Tuesday is a cute name for this year’s Mardi Gras. New Orleans is nevertheless, still a place where even the most mediocre king cake tastes like a celebration. Which is why it is still not “just Tuesday.”
Happy Mardi Gras!