There’s never a bad time to visit New Orleans. Whether you’re a fan of early American history, a lover of French architectural styles or live for partying it up with other thrill-seekers, you’re sure to find something to love in New Orleans.
But Mardi Gras season brings a host of extra reasons to visit the Big Easy. Here are four New Orleans Mardi Gras originals that you won’t find anywhere else.
- Cottonseed Oil Beignets from Cafe du Monde
From po’boys to daiquiris, New Orleans is home to plenty of culinary originals. One of the most beloved is the beignet, a light, airy pastry — similar to the fried dough you’d find at a carnival or amusement park, but way better! — that’s made with cottonseed oil, confectioner’s sugar and lots of love. Cafe du Monde, a storied New Orleans bakery and restaurant, serves the best-known (and, arguably, plain old best) beignets of them all. If you’re keen on trying theirs, arrive early, as lines can stretch around the block during peak hours.
- It’s All About the Krewe
You mean “crew,” right? Maybe in 49 other states, but not Louisiana. In New Orleans and the surrounding areas, “krewes” are close-knit groups — often friends, family members and neighbors — who organize Carnival parades and balls. If that sounds like a lot of work, it is! To cover expenses, such as parade floats and costumes, krewes typically assess membership fees that can range from $20 to hundreds of dollars. Because of all the organizational work involved, krewes may actively operate for months out of the year, but most parades and balls take place within a month of Mardi Gras.
- Historic Trolleys (Without the Hills)
When most people think of historic trolleys and streetcars, they think of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars. But New Orleans also has a functioning network of historic streetcars — and without the City by the Bay’s unavoidable, stomach-churning ascents and descents. There are three lines: St. Charles, Riverfront, and Canal Street. Collectively, they hit or pass close to most of the major landmarks in the Garden District, French Quarter and downtown New Orleans.
During Mardi Gras season, these public transit gems become packed with revelers. Will you be using them to get around?
- Mardi Gras Beads: Can You Collect Them All?
Mardi Gras just wouldn’t be the same without the beads. Thrown from parade floats, windows and enthusiastic passers-by, the purple, gold and green beads symbolize the colorful joy of Mardi Gras. They also have a storied history: The first “beads” were actually candied almonds thrown from parade floats in the mid-1800s, but savvy businessmen quickly realized that glass beads would be cheaper and easier to produce en masse. Since the 1870s, glass (now plastic) bead necklaces have been mainstays at Mardi Gras parades throughout New Orleans.
If you’ve ever been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras (and why would you go anywhere else!?), you can probably think of a dozen more items to add to this list. What can we say? New Orleans Mardi Gras originals abound. So the next time you’re walking down Bourbon Street with a hot beignet in your hand or scrambling for stray beads with your new best friend, make a mental note to tell the folks back home.
If you’ve never heard of king cake, don’t feel too bad. Most folks, especially those who grew up outside the Cajun belt, have never seen or tried this seasonal delicacy. For folks in and around New Orleans, however, king cake is an integral part of Mardi Gras season. Every year, untold thousands of these baked goods are fired up and shipped to the far corners of Louisiana. But how did this tradition get started?
Early History and Religious Significance
King cake is a seasonal delicacy that’s typically produced and shared between the Epiphany (Jan. 6, or the last of the 12 days of Christmas) until the day of Mardi Gras. The “king cake season,” or Carnival season, it effectively a bridge between the Christmas and Easter seasons, with Jan. 6 representing the official end of Christmas and Mardi Gras the day before the start of Lent.
King cake owes its name to the Biblical “three kings,” the “wise men” who brought gifts for baby Jesus. True to this tradition, king cakes contain either a figurine or abstract representation (often a fava bean) of the baby Jesus. Many “king cake parties,” both in Louisiana and elsewhere in the Catholic world, reward (or penalize) the person who finds and consumes the representation.
King Cake in New Orleans Culture
Although the origins of king cake are a bit misty, the practice definitely began in Catholic Europe. Today, king cake is made and consumed in France, Portugal and other historically Catholic countries, as well as non-Catholic countries like Greece and Bulgaria. The custom made its way to Louisiana early in the state’s history, with the first officially recorded “king cake party” taking place in New Orleans in 1870. Today, it’s a nearly ubiquitous item in local bakeries during Carnival season. And king cake has even made its way into the sports world: The New Orleans Pelicans’ secondary mascot, trotted out during Carnival season, is a king cake baby.
Variations and Recipes
Though king cake comes in many forms, it’s generally a round, brightly colored cake with frosting swirls, embedded fruits and candies and simple depictions of religious scenes. It uses three primary colors — purple, green and gold — and possibly some secondary colors. A typical recipe includes confectioner’s sugar, butter, milk, yeast, water, brown and white sugar, salt, egg, nutmeg and cinnamon. Recently, high-end bakeries have taken to offering a more diverse array of cake options, including some with boudin sausage embedded in the flour.
However, some enterprising bakers replace the butter with an equal amount of cottonseed oil or other healthy cooking oil. This reduces the cake’s cholesterol content without compromising flavor.
Think you have what it takes to make a mean king cake that stands up against the best New Orleans has to offer? Even if your first cake isn’t bakery-quality, everyone has to start somewhere. So why not roll up your sleeves, bust out the creativity and try your hand at this classic cottonseed oil cake? You might just discover a talent you never knew you had.
Mardi Gras – French for “Fat Tuesday” – is upon us, and so is our Times Square photo of delicious beignets! Remember, the beignet is the official doughnut of Louisiana and a Mardi Gras staple…they don’t call it “Fat Tuesday” for nothing. Check out our beignet tips and tricks. For even more inspiration, watch our “Best Beignet” video how-tos, and be sure to visit Cotton Seed Oil.com to learn more about the oil used to make great beignets.