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February 8, 2016

Fat Tuesday Traditions


Chargrilled oysters from New Orleans Creole Cookery
You can't visit the Crescent City without trying some Char-Grilled Oysters from New Orleans Creole Cookery.

Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday.  No matter what you call it, this celebration of indulgence, the last day before the fasting season of Lent, has become something of a cultural phenomenon enjoyed by all, religious and non-religious alike.  And, like St Patrick’s Day when everyone becomes Irish, on Fat Tuesday we all channel a little bit of Cajun into ourselves.

In New Orleans, the epicenter of it all, the celebration starts well before Fat Tuesday itself.  One of the oldest restaurants in New Orleans, Antoine’s, founded in 1840 and the birthplace of Oysters Rockefeller in 1899, should be on every visitor’s agenda for the week, but plan your visit carefully.  Each day, from Hermes Friday to Proteus Monday (named for the krewe leading the parade for the day) might be booked for a special luncheon or dinner by the day’s lead krewe.  And Fat Tuesday itself?  Forget it.  The Mistick Krewe of Comus, the oldest of all the krewes, has for decades sent its 220 members there for a traditional dinner of Oysters Rockefeller and Filet de Boeuf en Brochette Marchand de Vin - prime tenderloin tips in a red wine sauce that serves as a nod to the French origins of both the city and the holiday - before marching out to officially close the festivities.

The Proteus Room at Antoine's in New Orleans
The Proteus Room at Antoine's is Mardi Gras-themed year round, but the festive table decorations are added specifically for the big holiday.

Now, French may be the base, but it is the addition of Spanish and Caribbean influences that make the Creole food of the region so unique and instantly recognizable.  Over at New Orleans Creole Cookery, A.J. Tusa, current patriarch of an old New Orleans restaurant family, sets the standard for traditional Cajun cooking with classic dishes like jambalaya, red beans and rice, shrimp and grits, and crawfish etouffee.  Of course, while those are all worth trying, for Fat Tuesday you really need to seek out the rich and indulgent.  And for that Tusa rolls out grillades and grits - pork shoulder, slowly braised in Creole gravy til fork tender and served on a bed of creamy grits, resulting in a deeply rich dish that will properly prepare you for a night of serious drinking.

Like anywhere else, of course, tastes and recipes evolve over time.  Mike and Debra Blanchard, owners of Boudreau & Thibodau’s Cajun Cookin' over in Houma, LA, try to eat healthier on a daily basis but appreciate a good splurge during special occasions.  To satisfy that craving in their down-home, casual restaurant, they turn to one of their unique recipes created years ago.  Simply called the Seafood Special, this combination of shrimp and crab meat, rolled in seasoned bread crumbs before being fried to a crispy brown then smothered in a creamy crawfish sauce, results in a new dish that uses many of the familiar Creole ingredients.  The dish reminds Ms. Blanchard of her mother-in-law who “spent all day in the kitchen creating treasures from scratch just to see the joy of those who ate them.”

We love the Cajun spirit of the art outside Boudreau and Thibodeau's in Houma, Louisiana. 

There is a fine line, though, where the original dishes get lost to change.  Ever the traditionalist, A.J. Tusa looks to the King Cake.  Originally, a dry, bread-like cake sprinkled with sugar, it has become sweet and cloying like a grocery store birthday cake.  He was even a little shocked to see savory versions of the cake made with Andouille sausage and the like.  But, really, isn’t that kind of the point of the melting pot that is Creole cuisine - adding new layers to create innovative and exciting dishes to enjoy and satisfy before the self-imposed deprivation of Lent? - PEJ


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