In fact, Carnival season has been going on for a week now, having begun as true to tradition on January 6, the Twelfth Night of Christmas. Carnival kicks off in New Orleans with the very first Carnival ball that night, put on by a krewe called the Twelfth Night Revelers. Also that night, another group called the Phunny Phorty Phellows take over a streetcar for their first-night-of-Carnival revelry.
The Phunny Phorty Phellows, Twelfth Night 2011. Photo by Jim Hobbs, via Creative Commons
We’ve got a nice long Carnival season this year, which I love — Mardi Gras Day isn’t until March 8. That means there’s more time for … KingCake! You can read more about the tradition at the links, but in a nutshell … King Cakes are a sweet, coffee-cake like ring cake decorated with purple, green and gold sugar (the colors of Mardi Gras), available from Twelfth Night until Mardi Gras Day. (There are those who make them available year-round, but it is BLASPHEMY! BLASPHEMY, I TELL YOU! to eat King Cake anytime other than between these dates. Just don’t.) Baked into the cake is a small plastic baby, and if you get Da Baby in your piece of King Cake, you are obliged to throw the next King Cake party. This is a lot of fun, but can be problematic if your luck (good or bad, depending on your perspective) leads you to get the baby numerous times in one Carnival season. As a cartoon in artist Bunny Matthews’ old “F’Sure!” strip, which featured actual dialogue heard in New Orleans once portrayed, a guy said, “Yeah, when I was a kid at St. Rita’s, I got da King Cake baby five pawties in a row! My mama almos’ died,” to which his podna’ replied, “Yeah brah, ya shoulda swallowed dem!” (If this isn’t hilarious to you … well, it’s a New Orleans thing; you wouldn’t understand.)
Expatriate New Orleanians and others who love the city are now, thanks to the fact that we live in Da Future, ordering King Cakes over the Internets! They’re a bit expensive to ship, but as far as I’m concerned it’s worth every penny. Those of us who have baking skills or who live too far away for reasonable shipping, both of which apply to my friend Tiare in Sweden, make things easier by simply making their own!
King Cake, baked in Sweden! Looka dat! Just like ya mamma usesta go ova by McKenzie's ta buy!
I can’t bake worth a hoot, so this year I got mine from my old high school classmate Manny Randazzo’s King Cakes, which are some of the best in town. The first one I tried this year is one of his Pecan Praline King Cakes, which sounds really good. It was JUST delivered, and we’ll haul it to Seattle tomorrow to bring a little touch of Carnival to the snowy Pacific Northwest.
Speaking of pecan praline … King Cakes have come a long way since I was a kid. I grew up on the plain, dry, bready King Cakes made by McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppes, and I loved ‘em. A lot of people didn’t (the plain, dry, bready bit being a big reason why), but I suppose it’s a nostalgia thing for the rest of us. Most “plain” King Cakes today are at the very least a sweet, moist cinnamon coffee-cake dough, and many have myriad fillings — fruit, vanilla, chocolate, etc. Pecan praline is a new one on me though — nice going, Manny ‘n krewe — and I can’t wait to try it.
There are those who might want to take their King Cakes a bit … further. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Larry Ragusa.
Could it be … the ultimate King Cake? Awrite … I know what you want.
(Thanks to Greg Beron for sending this to me; that’s his brother Larry portraying “Larry.”)
Of course, today is the day to talk about food, especially when the average plate of Thanksgiving feasting that you’ll be holding in your hands today will weigh in at 3,500 calories … and that’s not counting dessert.
I’m home in New Orleans for Thanksgiving (and a Saints game), and for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. (Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad!) I’m hoping that on the spare day I have before I fly back I’ll be able to get me a po-boy. I haven’t had a proper one in months, and I’m jonesin’.
A week ago Sunday was the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival, a madhouse of over 40,000 people crammed onto Oak Street to celebrate one of the national dishes of our beloved city-state. Some locals groused about the crowds, preferring to get their po-boys at actual po-boy shops during the other 364 days of the year, but it looked like quite a party.
“CBS Sunday Morning” did a terrific report on the festival, and on our love for the Emperor of All Sandwiches.
The winners of the festival all looked terrific, and none of them was one of the classic po-boy joints like Parkway, Domilise’s, Johnny’s or even the more recent upstarts like Mahony’s. I’d love to track all these sandwiches down (the lobster po-boy will be on the menu at GW Fins soon) although unfortunately I won’t be able to during the one extra day I’ll have at home, sigh. I’m trying not to drool just reading this list — it’s great to see the art of the po-boy being elevated with all this creativity. That said, you just can’t beat a hot sausage po-boy.
Best of Show Po-boy: GW Fins’ Fried Lobster tossed in Crystal Hot Sauce Butter Best Pork Po-boy: Grand Isle Restaurant — Boucherie Po-Boy Best Specialty Seafood Po-Boy: Grand Isle Restaurant — Smoked Fish Po-Boy Best Roast Beef Po-Boy: Sammy’s Deli on Elysian Fields — Garlic Stuffed Roast Beef Po-Boy Best Specialty Non-Seafood Po-Boy: Sammy’s Deli on Elysian Fields -– Fried Chicken, Chisesi Ham and Swiss Cheese Po-Boy Best Shrimp Po-Boy: Redfish Grill — Grilled Shrimp with Blackened Avocado Po-boy People’s Choice Award: Coquette Restaurant — Homemade Hot Sausage Po-Boy
Yeah, I know, two posts in one day. Try not to faint.
I couldn’t help it, though. When I saw this report from WWL-TV in New Orleans I had to share it. New Orleans R&B legends Antoine “Fats” Domino and Dave Bartholomew, who together (and along with producer Cosimo Matassa) were responsible for so much great New Orleans music (and the building blocks of rock ‘n roll), hadn’t seen each other or spoken for years. Then WWL reporter Eric Paulsen brought Mr. Dave over to Fats’ house in the Lower Ninth Ward.
“And when these two living legends got together, it was magic… Fats is 82. Dave turns 90 next month. But they felt like teenagers when they saw each other.”
What I’d give to be able to see these two perform together. I last saw Dave years ago at Tipitina’s, heading up a big band and tearing it up for a guy who was in his 70s at the time. It’s been longer for Fats, a Jazzfest performance in 1997. He’s cripplingly shy these days and almost never performs, and was supposed to play Fest again in 2006, but that didn’t happen (sigh).
The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame is honoring Fats and Dave, and the special event will feature Lloyd Price, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, The ReBirth Brass Band, Theresa Andersson, The Dixie Cups, Toots & the Maytals, James Andrews, Jon Cleary & more. As our friend Diana said, “Just your average night in New Orleans …” I surely hope they release a DVD of this event.
(Catching up yet again with stragglers that never made it into the big Cocktail Index …)
This anise-scented variation on our local beloved milk punch comes from Chef Susan Spicer of Bayona and Herbsaint restaurants) and features Herbsaint, New Orleans’ original absinthe substitute. While you may substitute Pernod, Ricard, or any pastis or anise liqueur for the Herbsaint, if you want this to be truly New Orleanian you’ll use la vraie chose.
Herbsaint Original, the 1934 recipe
You’ll especially want to use Herbsaint Original, with the above label. Over the years Herbsaint’s formula changed, but in late 2009/early 2010 the Sazerac Company reproduced Marion Legendre’s original 1934 recipe — deeper, richer and with a broader, more complex herbal base.
You are, of course, welcome to use actual absinthe as well, but then if you used absinthe or pastis it wouldn’t be Brandy & Herbsaint Milk Punch, would it? (Well, all you’d have to do is change the name, but still.)
This punch is terrific when the weather starts to turn crisp in autumn and for the holiday season as well, but New Orleanians are fond of milk punches year-round. This would be great at breakfast or brunch, for a pre-dessert nog, or just for a party. Here’s the version to serve in The Flowing Bowl:
Brandy & Herbsaint Milk Punch
2 quarts cold milk
3 cups brandy
1/2 cup Herbsaint
1/2 cup superfine sugar
In a large bowl, mix all ingredients and stir to combine. Add more sugar or brandy to taste. Chill. Pour into a large punch bowl with a large block of ice and serve cold, topped with freshly grated nutmeg.
… and if you’re only making one or two, the single-serving version:
looka, <lʊ´-kə> dialect, v.
1. The imperative form of the verb "look," in the spoken vernacular of New Orleans. It is usually employed when the speaker wishes to call one's attention to something, or to what one is about to say.
2. --n. Chuck Taggart's weblog¹, est. 1999, with contributions by Wesly Moore, updated (almost) daily (except when it's not), focusing on cocktails and spirits, food and other drink, music, New Orleans and Louisiana culture ... and occasionally movies, books, sf, public radio, media and culture, travel, Macs, humor and amusements, reviews, news of the reality-based community, wry observations, complaints, the authors' lives and opinions, witty and/or smart-arsed comments and whatever else tickles the authors' fancy.
This weblog is part of The Gumbo Pages, by the way. It's big and unwieldy and full of all kinds of fun food, drink and New Orleans stuff. Check it out.
"Doctors, Professors, Kings and Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans" is a 4-CD box set celebrating the joy and diversity of the New Orleans music scene, from R&B to jazz to funk to Latin to blues to zydeco to klezmer (!) and more, including a full-size, 80-page book.
Produced, compiled and annotated by Chuck Taggart (hey, that's me!), liner notes by Mary Herczog (author of Frommer's New Orleans) and myself. Click here to read more about it!