Mardi Gras!

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King Cake at La Farine in Oakland. Photo by Wendy Goodfriend
King Cake at La Farine in Oakland. Photo by Wendy Goodfriend

Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday: whatever you call it, food and religion come together today into one last pre-Lenten blowout. Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day countdown to Easter that was, traditionally, a time of great austerity at table.

As Patience Gray points out in her book Honey from a Weed, about the culinary and cultural traditions she experienced throughout the Mediterranean, the Church's command of six weeks of spare diet--lentils and beans instead of meat, nothing rich or fried or sweet--was as much practical as spiritual. Depending on the cycle of the lunar calendar, Lent stretches across the cusp of late winter and early spring, the time when the larder, and the fields, would be at their most bare. Only dried beans from last autumn's harvest would still be on hand, and wild greens would be sprouting on the hillsides, encouraged by winter's rains and the slowly lengthening days giving a few minutes' more light before sunset each night.

But the sheep, goats, or cows would still be skinny from winter fodder, not yet producing milk, preserving their strength for giving birth to their lambs, kids, and calves later in the spring. The indulgences of Christmas and the New Year would be long past, and on a small subsistence farm, in a wind-scoured, stony mountain village, there would be little to harvest or sell at this season. And so there, conveniently, is the command for privation, making the stark meals of slow-cooked beans and boiled weeds into a commendable form of spiritual discipline.

Nothing succeeds like contrast, however, and so before the cold water and hard cheese of Lent came the glorious blowout of Carnival, a celebration of carne, meat, and all the accompanying carnal pleasures of the flesh. The pantry was stripped of whatever remaining delights it might still hold, like lard, for frying sweet dumplings, doughnuts, beignets, or pancakes; sugar for sweets like King Cake; and alcohol, stirring into any number of mixed punches.


Misrule was the rule of the day; masks hid everyday identities and lords swapped places with laborers. Parades, games, races, and balls turned the days before Lent into a dizzying holiday, culminating in one last day of feasting and festivity. In Louisiana, the traditions had the same French and Spanish Catholic and Caribbean roots, twisted through Creole and Cajun traditions, but the city and the country celebrated very differently. Costumes could be multi-thousand dollar gowns dripping with crystal beading, huge feathered regalias or old flour sacks dyed and fringed. You might parade into town after an all-day horseback ride or pull up in a stretch limo.

These days, outside of the South, if Mardi Gras is celebrated at all, it's mostly seen as an excuse to go out drinking on a Tuesday night, at bars blasting Clifton Chenier from speakers draped in strings of beads and festooned in fleur-de-lys. While there are venerable British, Irish, German, and Scandinavian pre-Lenten traditions (like the English Shrove Tuesday pancake races, run by women flipping pancakes in skillets), New Orleans' style is typically the one on display.

But who wouldn't enjoy an excuse to dig into crawfish etouffee, shrimp remoulade, gumbo or jambalaya? Bloggers from the Bay Area are getting into the mood with tips for fixing their favorite N'Awlins dishes.

Even if you're not a subscriber to the email newsletter Tuesday Recipe, you can still find cookbook author and television host Tori Ritchie's spectacular crab gumbo on the Tuesday Recipe website, a great source for straightforward, workable recipes that give punchy flavor payoffs for not too much work in the kitchen. And while a typical Louisiana gumbo would be made with blue crabs, our plump West Coast Dungeness work just fine. Ritchie also has recipes for big easy jambalaya and Louisiana-style barbecued shrimp.

Over at Parties That Cook, Bibby and her crew suggest Mini Shrimp Po'Boys with Bacon Mayo. Or, even better, a trip to Brenda's French Soul Food, the Tenderloin's beignet wonderland, now serving dinner.

You can also find beignets, barbecued shrimp n' grits, and fried oyster po'boys on the menu today at Brown Sugar Kitchen, serving breakfast and lunch in West Oakland. Uptown, Pican is planning a fancy Mardi Gras bash, with a live zydeco band, food and cocktails.

Longing for a King Cake? You can find them at La Farine in Oakland's Dimond district, as Susan Mernit reports over on Oakland Local. Seems the manager of that branch of the popular French bakery read some locals' plea for authentic King Cake on a neighborhood listserve, and decided to put his bakers on the job. Here's hoping this becomes a yearly tradition. (Sold out at 9:00am, call 510-531-7750 to inquire about more cakes available later today).