For those of you who don’t know, Mardi Gras is the French term for the time of celebration on the day before Ash Wednesday. The English term is Fat Tuesday. Ash Wednesday (in the Catholic church, at least…I don’t know much about other Christian faiths) is the beginning of Lent, a period of 40 days of fasting and penance prior to Easter. So the idea is that one goes out on Mardi Gras and has fun eating and drinking and doing all the decadent things one will then give up the next day for Lent.
The term “Mardi Gras” can also be used to describe the entire season starting on January 6th (also known as Twelfth Night or the Twelfth Day of Christmas) and ending at the stroke of midnight when Fat Tuesday becomes Ash Wednesday. This period of parades, King Cakes, and partying is also (and more accurately) known as Carnival season or Carnival time.
Sometimes people think that Mardi Gras day kicks off the Carnival season. That is absolutely wrong! If you arrive in New Orleans (or Rio, for that matter) on Mardi Gras day and think you are in for a few days of partying, you will be sorely disappointed. In New Orleans (in the 90s at least, but I suspect it’s still the case), when the clock struck midnight and it was officially Ash Wednesday, the cops would herd everyone out of the French Quarter streets. People could still hang out in bars, but the public partying was over.
So Mardi Gras is a day, (always the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday) and Carnival is a season. Got it? (I’m being technical here. The terms “Mardi Gras” and “Carnival” are in reality used interchangeably, but I think it’s important to know the distinction between the two.)
If you can’t be in New Orleans today, but you’re wondering what’s happening down on Bourbon Street, check out the Mardi Gras EarthCam. The camera is mounted on the corner of St. Peter and Bourbon Streets. When I checked it out on Saturday (2-14-15) morning, it was all still pretty tame, but folks were strolling past, and there was a Lucky Dog vendor across the street. (If you don’t know what a Lucky Dog is, look here: http://www.luckydogs.us/ or read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.)
I mentioned King Cakes, and probably not everyone reading this knows what they are. King Cakes are pastries eaten exclusively during Carnival season. If you make your own, you can eat one whenever you want, I suppose, but that would be sort of like eating fruitcake in June just because you like the taste. And perhaps in this age of internet ordering it may be possible to buy a King Cake at any time of the year. But I’m telling ya, you’re flying in the face of the spirit of Mardi Gras to eat them outside of Carnival season.
Traditionally, King Cakes are kind of like coffee cakes with a cinnamon-y filling and decorated with (sometimes) white icing and (always) purple, green, and gold sugar sprinkles. (I must admit, at the risk of losing any New Orleans cred I may have left, I have never much enjoyed traditional King Cakes. They’re too dry and not sweet enough for me.) Of course, these days, one can buy King Cakes with all sorts of delicious fruit and/or cream cheese fillings. (These newfangled King Cakes I like quite a bit.) One of my family members makes King Cakes with frozen crescent rolls for the dough, then fills them with cream cheese and pie filling. I know they’re not traditional, but they are sooooo delicious.
The really important part of a King Cake is the baby. The King Cake baby is made of plastic and is tucked into the cake, usually from underneath. I’ve read that the baby represents the Christ Child. What it definitely represents is the person who has to provide the next King Cake. Here’s how it works…People gather in the office break room or at a King Cake party and everyone has a slice of the King Cake. The person who finds the baby in his/her slice is expected to bring the next King Cake to work for everyone to enjoy or to host the next King Cake party. (No fair waiting until next Carnival season. Everyone wants the next King Cake soon.) So while it’s an honor to find the baby, it’s also an obligation. (And yes, maybe it is a little bit dangerous to have a small plastic object hanging out in your pastry, but everyone knows it’s there and is being careful not to swallow it. Although anyone who’s gotten the baby and hasn’t wanted to buy a cake has considered gulping it down.) (To learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about this topic, check out Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_cake.)
I’m probably not going to do anything to celebrate Mardi Gras this year. What’s the point if I can’t get drunk and get laid? Since I’m no longer 24 years old and not likely to pull off the celebration I want, I’ll just stay home.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!
I took the photos in this post.