A history lesson can be fun when it’s wrapped inside a festive Mardi Gras family dinner.
In many of the Gulf Coast states, the start of the Lenten season is one of the most anticipated times of the year. Months are spent planning and creating costumes, decorations, parade floats, food and colorful pageantry for the celebration of all things Mardi Gras.
This regional event that has spread across the country actually has its roots in ancient Rome, where citizens celebrated Lupercalia, a pagan, circus-like festival. Christianity absorbed some of the tradition at the time and began a period of feasting and merriment in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday—a time of penance—which later became Mardi Gras.
We can thank that fun-loving French explorer, Sieur d’Iberville, for bringing the indulgence of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, to America some 17 centuries later when he landed in what is now New Orleans, Louisiana. Modern-day Mardi Gras festivities are known for the many revelers who enjoy weeks of parties, masquerade balls and parades, and when the cities that celebrate come alive with cultural color.
Mardi Gras at Home
Mardi Gras really is a family-friendly affair—ask any native New Orleanian child how he or she gets the attention of the floats going by at the parades. They’ll scream at the top of their lungs, “Hey, Mister! Throw me some beads!”
While you may want kids to use their inside voices during your party, the spirit of Mardi Gras is easy to bring to your home. You will discover that the best part of Mardi Gras is the food, such as red beans and rice, gumbo and jambalaya. Not all Cajun food is spicy; it’s more about flavor. As long as you aren’t heavy handed with the cayenne, these dishes are kid-friendly. These family recipes (on the following pages) like to simmer a bit, so plan ahead when making them.
Grandpa Leatherbury’s Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 90 minutes
Note: Make poultry stock by boiling chicken or turkey bones with a bit of onion and celery for an hour or so. We often substitute a cup of the chicken stock with ham stock made from boiled ham hocks to add a deeper, more-complex flavor to the jambalaya.
2 ½ to 3 lbs. chicken
1 lb. smoked sausage or andouille sausage
1 large chopped onion
2 stalks chopped celery
¼ chopped bell pepper
1 large can crushed tomatoes
1 clove garlic
2 Tablespoons chopped parsley
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
5 chicken bouillon cubes
4 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
3 cups water
2 cups washed, uncooked rice
1. Boil chicken in water; debone when cooked. The cooking water can be saved for chicken stock.
2. Sauté the sausage and remove from pan when cooked through. Add chopped onions, celery, pepper and garlic (the “trinity”) to the oil left from the sausage and sauté until light yellow.
3. In large stockpot, add chicken, sausage, sautéed vegetables and all remaining ingredients, except rice. Add 3 cups water to pot. Cook for 10 minutes on medium-high heat, bringing mixture to a low boil.
4. Add washed rice. Cook over low heat until rice is tender and jambalaya is just moist.
Mardi Gras Cupcakes
To make multicolor Mardi Gras cupcakes:
1. Start with a boxed white cake mix. Make as directed on package.
2. Divide the batter into three bowls. With gel food coloring, color one cake batter purple, another yellow and the third one green.
3. Put cupcake liners in your muffin tin.
4. Drop a tablespoon of each color into each liner and bake.
5. Top with frosting and colored sprinkles.
The Official Mardi Gras Dessert
To celebrate in true New Orleanian style, you’ll need the official dessert of Mardi Gras—the “king cake.” King cake is a big, Danish-style pastry, usually made in the shape of a ring, drenched in white glaze and covered with purple, gold and green sprinkles.
What’s fun about king cake (especially for kids) is the tiny plastic baby that’s hidden inside every cake. Whenever the slices are served, the lucky person who finds the baby gets to buy the king cake the next year! You can find king cake mixes at places like Cost Plus World Market (worldmarket.com), but to get an authentic king cake shipped to your door, order from Haydel’s Bakery, in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Visit haydelbakery.com.
Set the Stage for a Family-style Mardi Gras
Try these easy ideas that will add to your family’s enjoyment of this special meal.
• Break out the beads and masks
Bright purple, gold and green are traditional Mardi Gras colors. Because these colors are so vivid, you don’t need to do a lot to make a big impact. Just draping or laying out handfuls of beads makes for a festive atmosphere.
• Set a Mardi Gras table
You can start with gold chargers (that you probably have left over from Christmas) and add neutral china, Mardi Gras-colored linens and a string of beads to complete a festive look.
• Make a centerpiece
Cover a box or vase in brightly colored or patterned paper and place a small piece of foam inside to start your centerpiece. Glue a few masks (and a sign or two, if you have any) to bamboo skewers and insert the skewers into the foam inside the box. Drape some beads at the top of the box, and your centerpiece will set the stage for the evening.
• Desserts as decorations
Colorful cupcakes, cakes or parfaits can add a design element to any event. We used purple, gold and green sprinkles on cupcakes and placed them on a pretty stand to add a little extra color to our celebration.
• Double-duty decorations save on budget and cleanup
After picking out masks, the kids glued on feathers, sequins and rhinestones. Along with strings of beads, these make-your-own-masks are a perfect take-home favor (if you’ve invited guests).
by Paula Biggs, Frog Prince Paperie
Styled and Photographed by Paula Biggs, Rayna Houveras and Jill Luecht
Recipes by Philip and Lewis Leatherbury