The sound of the drum line marching closer isn’t the only rumbling you hear during Carnival in New Orleans.
Getting to Fat Tuesday is hungry work. You need to eat.
Appropriately enough, Carnival time food is unconventional.
Sure, some designated vendors stake out the parade routes, mostly hawking the standard festival fare of funnel cake and meat on a stick. But that’s a narrow sideline to what keeps Mardi Gras fed.
This most-homegrown New Orleans holiday combines family custom, opportune street eats and the pragmatic logistics of hosting a crowd or packing along food for the parade route.
It doesn’t always look like those food magazine photo shoots of New Orleans classics that circulate this time of year. But food that reflects how a city parties together is as real as it gets.
Here’s my all-star roster of the dishes that get us through Mardi Gras:
1) The humble, heroic sandwich platter
Tiny sandwiches are huge this time of year. These are the deli platters of mini muffulettas, mini po-boys (that is, giant sandwiches cut small) and, most of all, the humble triangle sandwich of cold cuts on squishy white and wheat bread, crusts removed.
They turn up at parade route picnics, house parties, krewe balls and even on parade floats. They’re utilitarian, ubiquitous and an indispensable part of keeping people fed when no one wants to sit down for a proper meal. They have zero glamor, but New Orleans would be lost without them.
2) Fried chicken for everyone
Carnival time is open season for fried chicken, particularly the type I call party chicken.
This is different from sit-down restaurant chicken. This is inexpensive, big-batch, take-out chicken. It needs to be quick, durable enough to travel and survive a parade route and affordable for sharing with whoever turns up. Ideally, it should also remain appealing when cold, hours after it was first ordered.
All gas station fried chicken is quick and inexpensive. But it is not all created equal. In fact, you can eat a lot of bad gas station chicken…
The city has a vast and varied network of chicken purveyors that can prove clutch as we keep driving toward Mardi Gras, from the mom-and-pop wing shops to national chains to gas stations with serious fried chicken counters. We need all of them to feed to flock this time of year.
3) Bloody Mary mornings
Yes a bloody Mary counts as food. At the very least, it should qualify as nutrition.
There’s the tomato base to the cocktail, and then there’s what goes on top -- all the pickled and fresh garnishes that constitute a side salad.
Any town that likes to party should have a good late-night scene. But in New Orleans, putting on Mardi Gras, a party like no other, also means…
How else are you supposed to get celery into your system if not from that bloody Mary in a plastic Mardi Gras cup you’re carefully stirring together before the parade?
If a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, a double shot of vodka helps ensure some variety in the vegetables that go down the hatch too.
4) Cast iron cooking
Red beans, jambalaya, gumbo – for our purposes here, these all fall under the same category as New Orleans pot cooking. That pot is often cast iron, and the recipes are usually ironclad, family-based, time-tested winners.
One-pot dishes are ideal for feeding many people off the stove or outdoors. They can be assembled with basic ingredients and made masterful with the right sausage or seasoning. They can last a long time on the stove and often improve with reheating. Often rice-based, they build a sturdy foundation for whatever Carnival has in store for you next.
In New Orleans we have indigenous dishes that are such a natural part of casual cooking they can sometimes be taken for granted. They shouldn’t.
The next time you dig into a paper bowl of Creole flavor between parades, remember to count your blessings for a regional food culture that fills your belly and has your back.
5) Homemade street food
The least predictable food of Mardi Gras is very often the most gratifying and memorable. This is freelance food, the true cooking of the streets.
It can look like a bake sale, or a tailgate. Sometimes the offerings align with the cast iron cooking mentioned above. But this particular niche has its own place on the Carnival food roster because of the setting and circumstances.
You find examples in front yards, schoolyards, church rectories and sometimes on the move, from little red wagons or carts making the rounds. Partake, and your impulse snacking might support school projects, local clubs or just household budgets.
The transformative power of Carnival changes ordinary men and women into make-believe monarchs and familiar streets into promenades of colorfu…
I’ve eaten from veritable cafeteria lines of slow cookers arrayed on folding tables and I’ve pulled sauce-soaked ribs from portable grills. I’ve found foiled-wrapped breakfast burritos nestled warmly in wheeled ice chests and packs of pralines in plastic baggies.
Sometimes this is all sanctioned and iadvertised. Sometimes it’s not. During Carnival, I just follow my nose.
6) The last king cakes
We are wrapping up an exceptionally long Carnival season, one stretching 59 days from Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras day. That means a lot of opportunities for king cake.
Some people burn out on it. But this is the time to push through.
Every recommendation you’ve heard about your friend’s favorite cake, every ad you’ve seen and social media post you’ve scanned along the way all comes down to crunch time.
If there’s a new king cake you’ve been eyeing, or an old favorite you haven’t yet reconnected with, now is the time to eat...or wait another 10 months for Carnival 2020 to begin.
Editor's note: this story was originally published Feb. 22, 2017
Carnival can feel like a dance between the familiar and new. We go to the same parades each year, invade the same friends’ homes, and we might…