Christmas is amazing for the fact that everyone– even strangers– gets caught up in the goodwill and cheer and carries it forward. But then that atmosphere fizzles after the New Year, and it isn’t even a nice segue into calmness– more like someone pulls the plug and abruptly the party’s over so go home.
Not so in New Orleans. The end of the holidays marks the start of another season also tied to the winter solstice, Mardi Gras. The trees and lights don’t go down, they just get the green, purple and gold ornaments added in. Adults get to be kids again and it all starts with the Twelfth Night Revelers bal masque!
Avoid the French Quarter frat scene– where Mardi Gras is reduced to a tacky garish spectacle that metrosexual yupster tourists looking for fast hard fun so they can feel cool lap right up– and you’ll see the magical transformation of N’awlins into a formalised make-believe world of monarchic rule in all its pomp, finery and regalia. Twelfth Night brings to life the Lord of Misrule, the Goddess of Chance, the enchanted courts with its jesters, the aristocratic pompadours and rituals of old…. Any life list should include this Mardi Gras and an invitation from a Krewe to either the Bacchus, Rex or Endymion Ball. These galas are an entire year in the making and are extraordinary sensory events.
I thought about this because K and I went to a dinner party the other night. One of the couples could hardly speak English and we command just a lick and a half of French, so needless to say our conversation with them wasn’t hopping. Then “la galette des Rois” came out, and suddenly conversation knew no boundaries, starting with this most token of culinary traditions associated with the run-up to Fat Tuesday across cultures.
The French “King Cake” is a flaky puff pastry with a dense center of frangipani– totally unlike our King Cake (I sooo want a Gambinos king cake delivery right now!). It’s served traditionally to draw the King to the Epiphany, with the youngest person in the group (likely a child) sent under the table to pick at random who gets the next slice of cake. The slice with the trinket in it (a collectible porcelain baby jesus in olden times) designates that person the new “King” (regardless of sex), and it becomes her/his turn to bring a cake to the next party.
(Ours had a glass duck, and I had the treat of finding the first trinket of the season. And we’re having dinner again with that couple tomorrow!)
So N’awlin’s King Cake (brought over by the French settlers) kicks off the Mardi Gras season, with the Twelfth Night Revelers using it to choose the Queen for their Ball… The Gambinos family is renowned for the past decades for their King Cakes. They will even deliver… So we are in the Carnival spirit, along with all the Tulane alums and Louisianans(sp?) in Phnom Penh. Unfortunately this year won’t be the year of the masqued gala (we’re too busy celebrating Bush’s departure to plan another event!), but the annual festivities must continue– even if it’s just a Pimps and Hoez murder mystery affair ;-)