Les Bons Temps Roulent in New Orleans
Joshua Willem van den Berg, James Hull - March 3rd, 2014
Mardi Gras transforms New Orleans into the nation’s best Carnival celebration, and like similar festivities the world over, the chaos and elation are framed by longstanding traditions carved out over the generations. Only New Orleans could mix the roux of cultural influences that blends into the haze of beads, floats, and tipple that mark one of the world’s best parties, in America’s most jubilant city. Food Arts finds out what New Orleanian hospitality insiders are up to on the big day, and which foods are involved.
With a legendary sense of fun, Ti Martin of Commander’s Palace says participating in Mardi Gras is like being an anonymous rock star. Many krewes (social clubs that parade together) choose her restaurant for a “float party” to kick off the festivities. Martin and her family—numbering about 150—always coordinate their costumes. This year they’ll take to the streets as Frenchmen, complete with berets and scarves oozing joie de vivre. “Everywhere else in the world, it’s just another Tuesday,” says Martin, who closes her restaurant for the occasion, and celebrates with a special jambalaya topped with shrimp Creole and a taste of king cake with cream cheese filling.
“Some of our favorite Mardi Gras foods are of the liquid variety,” she adds, mentioning the frozen milk punch she brings to the parade. It was on the Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina that Martin and her entourage were inspired to invent a new cocktail. They perfected it that night, and the Whoa Nellie entered history as part of Martin and Lally Brennan’s book In the Land of Cocktails.
With so many cocktails in circulation, the partiers can get a little rowdy. Chef John Folse’s favorite Mardi Gras practices are to keep any excessive foolishness at bay. “There's a 44 year old tradition of greasing the poles on Bourbon Street to prevent revelers from shimmying up to the balcony rooms during the festivities,” says Folse. “I even helped judge the best 'greaser' this year. My only complaint: Next year they have to use bacon fat or lard instead of petroleum jelly!”
Donald Link’s flagship restaurant, Herbsaint, sits on St. Charles Avenue along the parade route, in the heart of the action. They put up viewing stands that can be reserved ahead and which are offered to restaurant patrons when space permits. “It can get a little hairy down there,” says Stephen Stryjewski, Link's right hand man at Cochon and Butcher. “There are 12 days of parades total, with two to 12 every day. By the end of it all, you get a little beat up.” Like many chefs, Stryjewski says that Popeyes fried chicken is the unofficial snack of Mardi Gras, but Butcher offers options for those who want something more refined: “We do a charcuterie parade pack and a few catering items geared toward having a bunch of people over to your house.” Since executive pastry chef for Link Restaurant Group Rhonda Ruckman came on three years ago, they also offer a variety of less than traditional king cakes. By far, the most popular one is the Elvis, filled with peanut butter and bananas, and topped with marshmallow Fluff frosting and candied bacon.
David Guas, chef/owner of Bayou Bakery, fondly recalls childhood memories of the shoebox floats that schoolchildren across New Orleans make every year and the elaborate ladders that parents construct to give their kids a better view of the parade. His wife, Simone Rathlé, remembers rising at 5 a.m. to meet the Jefferson City Buzzards (a parade club) for Bloody Marys and Mimosas, and continue with jambalaya and her neighbor’s signature Peppa-weenies–hot dogs cooked in a crab boil stock. “The place where you watch the parade never changes,” she says, noting that families tend to claim their spots for life. Rathlé always made sure to be at the parade early enough to see two of New Orleans’ oldest krewes, Rex and Zulu, who lead off Fat Tuesday. Zulu’s members decorate coconuts to throw from their float—a prize for anybody lucky enough to catch one.
Some other traditions are also getting an update at the hands of Daniel Causgrove, chef de cuisine at The Grill Room at The Windsor Court Hotel. Causgrove was inspired by the holiday’s spirit of indulgence. “It’s a time to eat hearty dishes, open great bottles of wine, and invite friends in before going to the parades,” he says. At The Grill Room, he’s moderated that flair for decadence using a slightly lighter hand, creating a blue crab gratin with Manchego, Sherry, and caviar that’s rich, but not overpowering.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!