Big, Easy Fun

Can't get to New Orleans this year? Cook up some gumbo, grab a slice of king cake and make it a Maryland Mardi Gras.

February 18, 2004|By Marion Winik | Marion Winik,Special to the Sun

I was afraid of Mardi Gras, actually, my first time. I drove down for the festivities with a group of friends from New York in February 1983, and though I was unquestionably a girl who liked a party, Mardi Gras sounded like enough party to be scary.

Apparently, I overcame my fears. I ended up towing a U-Haul back down to the Crescent City two months after I reluctantly left, and moving in with a bartender I'd met and fallen in love with and whom I eventually married. Even though he and I relocated from our little slave-quarter apartment on Royal Street and Ursulines Avenue to Austin, Texas, not long afterward, we returned to New Orleans for Mardi Gras for many years.

But sure, it's true: Mardi Gras can be more party than you can handle, and it's not only the intervening decades that have blurred the memories of my first one into bright smears of color and light, with the taste of shrimp and the smell of oysters hovering around them. I think the memories were more or less in that state the morning after.

But as I began to learn on that trip and came to fully appreciate later on, Mardi Gras is much more than the boozy revelry that takes over the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday. These days, I never go near the Quarter during a carnival visit and I leave on Monday afternoon.

My favorite part of Mardi Gras is the weekend before it, when the krewes of Iris, Endymion and Bacchus put on some of the most beautiful and elaborate parades you'll ever see. (A krewe is a social club that sponsors both private and public carnival events, such as balls and parades.)

My favorite place to be is the Mid-City or Uptown neighborhoods, where people who live along the parade routes open their homes to friends and friends of friends for bathroom breaks and gumbo stops, where children line the sidewalks on shoulders or ladders, ready to catch glittery plastic beads from the costumed float riders.

For the children of New Orleans, Mardi Gras is not just a day off from school. It's like Disney World arriving at the front door, only more so. As soon as I had kids, I would never have dreamed of going to Mardi Gras without them.

In addition to the crucial ritual of parade-going, my Mardi Gras visits follow another very important schedule -- that of dining opportunities. New Orleans has some of the most distinctive and delectable eating in this country or anywhere else, and it is found everywhere from the fanciest restaurant to the most run-down takeout shack. Any visit to New Orleans, they say, is measured in meals, not in days: You have to stay long enough to eat all the foods you've been craving. At least you have to try.

Of course, no so-called Cajun restaurant or home recipe is ever really going to make an oyster po-boy like you get at Uglesich or Weaver's, "dressed" with lettuce and tomato on soft French bread. The boiled crawfish you buy in bulging brown grocery bags at any New Orleans seafood market, piled in with ears of corn, new potatoes and onions, is not going to be matched by the delicate little pile of crustaceans on your plate at the New Orleans-style restaurant in Philly or Baltimore. The midnight beignet at Cafe du Monde is definitely not just a powdered-sugar doughnut, and no out-of-town muffuletta is going to sport the sesame loaf or the olive salad used at Central Grocery on Decatur Street.

I won't even start on the mind-blowing haute cuisine variations found at fine restaurants like Emeril's, Brigtsen's, Bayona and K-Paul's. It's not just the food that makes these places stand out. It's the good cheer and gusto surrounding the whole dining experience, no matter how haute you go.

OK, so you're going to have to go to New Orleans. But in the meantime, the good news is that some New Orleans food can be had at home, even by those as far away as we are. You can start by ordering a king cake, a circular, sometimes filled, coffeecake frosted in Mardi Gras colors of green, gold and purple. You can get them online from the very same bakeries where aficionados pick them up in the Big Easy. Most vendors throw in some beads and doubloons -- shiny aluminum coins with krewe insignia -- as well.

The purple, green and gold symbolize justice, faith and power, says Pableaux Johnson, a New Orleans-based food and travel writer. That's funny, because I thought they stood for unabashed cheesiness.

During Mardis Gras, Johnson fixes his famous chicken-and-sausage gumbo, whips up a batch of Bloody Marys and waits for friends to arrive at his house, which lies on the uptown parade route. He makes the hot soup, he says, because it's rarely warm and sunny during Mardi Gras. It's more likely in the low 40s, wet and bone-chillingly cold, with a pale-gray sky over it all. "Gumbo weather," Johnson calls it with relish.

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