If you're born and raised in New Orleans, you don't fit anywhere else. Nothing against any other city, but it's just a way of life, a culture, that's so unique. It's just the idea of having Mardi Gras, the idea in the face of everything that's happened, taking the time to celebrate. It is something you need to do to keep yourself going. ~ Fred LeBlanc
This year's trickster Mardi Gras moon is a waxing crescent—a good omen for the Crescent City. Fat Tuesday promises to be sweet and spicy, wriggling into her final costume of this year's season—sequin-covered thundershowers. But that's South Louisiana in the Spring, y'all. C'est la vie!
A broad scattering of beads, beer cups and deserted King Cake babies will fall laughing in her sassy wake. She will touch her children, native and foreign, with madness and magic so they dance, march, eat, drink and strut in a riot of feathers and face paint. Gilted dreams and glitter are the bonheur du jour.
Wednesday morning Madame Mardi Gras will head for home on unsteady high heels and laddered stockings, sloppy drunk, lipstick smeared and underwear on backwards. She will reverently cross herself as she staggers past the cathedral, high-fived Wednesday’s Lenten dawn in passing just before she slips down the street for beignets and café au lait, fortified from the flask tucked into her garter. She will hand a dollar to the praline man to get her final little bit of too much. With sweet pecans stuck in her teeth, powdered sugar on her chin and whiskey and chicory on her breath, she’ll wobble down to The River and into the past, one more gone Mardi Gras, a lá New Orleans.
PECANS: Pronounced puh-KAHNS, people. Don't be talking about no pee-can around me.
The pecan is at the heart of a good Louisiana praline. The French who settled in the New World yearned for the sugar coated almonds from home, called "pralines." Alas, almonds did not grow in Louisiana--but pecans did. Cane sugar was abundant, as was rich cream. So the Louisiana French set about improving on the delightful treat and a Creole confection was born.
It's amazing how you can give a few of the same ingredients to different people and come out with candies that have completely different personalities. Some pralines are sugary and thin, some are thick and creamy. Some have little pieces of pecan, others have halves. I don't think I have ever had a bad praline, but I like them best creamy and chunky with big old pieces of pecan.I began to develop my ultimate praline when I taught Creole and Cajun cooking. The original recipe I used was in one of Louisiana's many venerable regional cookbooks, Cookin' on the Horseshoe. (False River, in Pointe Coupee Parish, is a sizeable horseshoe shaped lake left behind after the shiftings and twists of the great Mississippi. Hence the name of the cookbook.) Tweaks and adjustments over time have turned this recipe into my standard, the one I'll pass on to my grandchildren.
- 3 cups packed brown sugar
- 2 cups light cream
- 6 Tablespoons butter
- 4 cups pecan halves
Spray sides of a heavy 4-quart saucepan with non-stick spray. In it, combine sugars and cream. Cook and stir over medium-high heat to boiling.
Clip candy thermometer to side of pan. Cook and stir over medium-low heat to 234 degrees—soft-ball stage.
Remove from heat. Add butter, but do not stir. Cool, without stirring, to 150 degrees.
Stir in nuts. Beat till candy just begins to thicken but is still glossy (about 3 minutes.)
Drop by spoonfuls onto baking sheets sprayed with cooking spray or lined with parchment paper. If candy becomes too stiff, stir in a few drops hot water. Store tightly covered.
I have a soft place in my Louisiana heart for Professor Longhair. Young Henry Roland Byrd (1918-1980) made his way from Bogalousa to New Orleans as a boy and tapdanced on the streets for coins. He learned piano from his mother and practiced on broken-down pianos behind buildings and in alleyways. Rumor is that working around broken keys helped him develop his unique rhythmic style of playing.
Despite enormous talent he had trouble making a living playing gigs and recording and reverted to his early card-sharping skills to support himself. He was fifty-four and working as a janitor in a music store when he was located after a lengthy search by the organizers of Jazz Fest. They didn't find him in time for the first Jazz Fest, but he was a complete showstopper at the second one. The performance is historic.
His career revived and he began to garner the recognition that was his due. His first album, Crawfish Fiesta, was completed when he was sixty-two. He died the day before its scheduled release in 1982. He received a posthumus Grammy in 1987 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
'Fess was the spiritual daddy of Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll. He did not achieve the stature his music deserved but greats like Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Little Richard and Doctor John were his gifted spawn. He was a man so far ahead of his time I don't think we've reached him yet.
The Professor recorded a song called Go to the Mardi Gras, that might have fit the theme here, but the tune that get me every time is "Tipatina." This version includes legendary New Orleans band, The Meters.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Cookin' On The Horseshoe cover art by Eugene Sherburne
Video courtesy of YouTube
All text copyright 2011 Theresa Rice