Celebrating Mardi Gras
Post Hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras has new meaning. While the often raucous celebration has always been associated with good food and fun, today's Mardi Gras is about pride in the past and holding on to hope for the future, two wonderful reasons to get in on the festivities and throw your own Mardi Gras party.
Celebrating Mardi Gras in the traditional New Orleans way is an excellent way to break up what may be the dullest time of the year. The great thing about a Mardi Gras party is that it doesn't have to be held on Fat Tuesday to be "official." The carnival season runs from January 6 (Epiphany, King's Day, or Twelfth Night) to midnight of Ash Wednesday, although the parties get bigger and more lively the closer you get to Mardi Gras proper. But remember, once Ash Wednesday comes, Lent begins, and hosting a Mardi Gras party would be inappropriate.
Planning Your Party
Mardi Gras celebrations in the United States goes back to the 1700s. The first U.S. Mardi Gras party was in Mobile, Ala., which was soon followed by Mardi Gras in the area which was soon to be incorporated as New Orleans. The official Mardi Gras colors – purple, gold and green – were chosen in 1872 by the King of the Carnival. The colors do have specific meanings, according to Party City: Purple signifies justice, gold signifies power and green signifies faith. Today, no Mardi Gras party is complete without some decorations in these colors.
Beads are a must-have item at any Mardi Gras celebration. At parades, they are known as "throws," and are tossed from passing floats. In New Orleans, beads are tossed from spectators on French Quarter balconies to people walking the streets. For home parties, beads can be used as decorations, hanging from light fixtures or spread out on tables among food dishes. Guests can be greeted with beads upon entering the home.
Costumes are also popular at Mardi Gras. They don't have to be elaborate, Halloween-style costumes; instead, party guests should be encouraged to wear things like crazy hats, feather boas or anything brightly colored, especially in purple, green or gold. Masks are another Mardi Gras favorite. In fact, the host should have a supply of Mardi Gras masks on hand for guests who forget to come in costume.
Other party items and decorations to have on hand include doubloons, Moon Pies and fancy decorated umbrellas that can be used for an impromptu dance and parade in the backyard.
"No party is complete without a king cake," says Kathy King, who spent 10 years celebrating Mardi Gras in Mobile. The king cake is baked with a plastic baby figurine in the batter. "If you get the baby, you supply the cake for next year's party," says King. According to Chef Patrick Mould of the Louisiana School of Cooking, thousands of king cakes are shipped from Louisiana each year.
Because Mardi Gras is associated with New Orleans, you'll want to include plenty of Cajun and Creole foods. Chef Mould says gumbo is one of the most traditional of all Mardi Gras foods. "In small towns, people [representing an organization like a krewe] who are under the direction of a Captaine ride on horseback from home to home to gather the ingredients to make gumbo," he says. "The most prized ingredient is the live chicken."
Gumbo is easy to make and serves a lot of people, which is why it is a Mardi Gras celebration favorite. Other foods to serve include jambalaya, crawfish, shrimp creole, fried catfish, oysters and beignets for dessert. While traditional New Orleans food is spicy, it is better to keep the flavoring mild and offer a variety of hot sauces for those who want to add a kick to their meal.
The End Is Only the Beginning
At the end of the party, make sure each guest goes home with a bag of "throws" from Mardi Gras, but don't stop there. Place a little note in each bag, encouraging your guests to make monetary donations to organizations ( American Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way, etc.) that are helping to rebuild New Orleans – and preserve the spirit of Mardi Gras for generations to come.