When I moved to New Orleans a few years ago, I had a lot to learn about Mardi Gras (literally translated, “Fat Tuesday”). I primarily pictured the most salacious bits I had seen on TV from afar. You know the scene that’s so often associated with Carnival: beads and delirious college students. Although tourists can certainly find those on Bourbon Street during the Carnival season, the truth is, they can find them there any night of the week, the whole year round.
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On the other hand, the truly unique, essential delights of Mardi Gras are to be found celebrating and feasting with family and friends in the Crescent City’s other neighborhoods. Sure, there are parades with lots of people throwing beads and myriad other collectible objects, but the targets for those are less likely to be a drunken tourist than an overjoyed 4-year-old hoisted up on her parent’s shoulders. Families will have camped out and picnicked all day long to get the best spot on the parade route.
For me, this image truly encapsulates Mardi Gras: elaborately costumed families dancing joyously down neighborhood streets on their way to congregate in friends’ homes to refuel on spreads of Popeyes fried chicken, a signature family gumbo, mini muffulettas, fried seafood po’ boys, king cake, and more.
While the rest of the country is emerging from the holiday season and hunkering down for winter, New Orleans locals are ramping up for Mardi Gras, which is much more than a one-day celebration; it’s an entire season. January 6, the 12th night of Christmas in the Catholic calendar, marks the official beginning of Carnival season—also known by many locals as “king cake season”—when we are finally allowed to eat king cake and when the first of the dozens of upcoming parades hits the streets. Christmas decorations aren’t taken down; they’re simply transformed into Mardi Gras decorations.
From that date until Fat Tuesday, locals are frantically constructing costumes. One of my wife’s students says that after New Year’s her family’s dinner table becomes “the glitter factory.” Then comes the menu planning, attending parades and king cake parties, and generally anticipating the indulgent farewell to the flesh—the literal English translation of the Latin “carnival.” Because Mardi Gras season is traditionally tied to the Catholic calendar, the Wednesday following Mardi Gras marks the beginning of Lent, a season of penance and abstinence that precedes Easter. But on that last Tuesday before Lent, we’ll don our costumes, lay out feasts, and either hit the neighborhood streets ourselves to become part of the parade or open up our houses to fortify and resuscitate the passing revelers.
So wherever you are this Fat Tuesday, there’s no better way to celebrate than to do as we do and take it literally, preparing a decadent spread of Louisiana specialties. These are the recipes for an unforgettable Mardi Gras.
Here’s a homemade version filled with a gooey cinnamon-sugar swirl.
King CakeMake this traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras treat in your own kitchen, no matter where you live.
Sausage, rice, and seasonings make for rich, satisfying, crispy hors d’oeuvres.
Boudin BallsHow do you make this iconic Cajun sausage party-ready? Fry it.
Who can resist these luscious, red wine caramel–coated pork belly bites?
RillonsFor your next gathering, think beyond the cocktail meatball.
This scaled-up celebration-worthy drink can be made ahead so you can be ready for party-goers.
Big-Batch SazeracsBecause sometimes you need a round of cocktails at the ready.
Smoky Chicken, Sausage, and Shrimp Gumbo
Supremely comforting, a pot of gumbo is the pièce de résistance of any Mardi Gras celebration.
Smoky Chicken, Sausage, and Shrimp GumboThis landmark dish is much more than you think, and it's infinitely more delicious.
So drench yourself in purple, green, and gold glitter; invite your friends and family over to feast; and forget the doldrums of midwinter. Today, we let the good times roll—or as they say in New Orleans, laissez le bon temps rouler.
Hero image (top left): Pableaux Johnson