Fat Tuesday 2011: King cakes, Mardi Gras and the joys of Carnival season

Revelers bared flesh and threw beads on Bourbon Street until the sun rose on Mardi Gras to mark the annual pre-Lenten celebration that takes on so many shapes in New Orleans, from early morning parades to gay costume balls and second-line dancing of Mardi Gras Indians.
Compiled by Ian Saleh
Washington Post Staff
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 1:45 PM

Fat Tuesday might be the Tuesday before Lent, but little restraint could be seen in New Orleans' Bourbon Street. As Melissa Bell and T.J. Ortenzi reported:

For the past five days, the southern party town has given itself over to excess, good food, lots of drink and maybe a little debauchery. And that's not the weeks leading up to the event with small parades preparing for the celebration. Mardi Gras is a marathon, New Orleanians will tell you, and Fat Tuesday marks the final stretch.

For the non-New Orleanians, a quick primer on Mardi Gras: Before the Catholic holiday of Lent, in which worshipers fast and repent for 40 days, people do their best to make up for the days of restraint with jam-packed days of plenty. Festivals are observed all over the world, such as Carnival in Brazil, but it's never been so associated with a city's identity as it has with New Orleans.

For the parades, krewes organize floats and balls. The krewes -- part secret society, part drinking club, part business networking (think country club without the walls) -- fund the costumes, decorations and gifts given to spectators. Each krewe is famous in its own right, though Rex, Zulu and Orpheus krewes are probably the best known outside the city limit. Rex, the king of Mardi Gras, and his queen get the official nod from the city and Orpheus usually has a Hollywood celebrity add some Tinseltown glitter to the melee. This year comedian Jennifer Coolidge rode the Orpheus float. The spectators make one contribution to the mix: they offer up the phrase: "Throw me something, mister."

Fat Tuesday is celebrated with a wide variety of food, drink and tradition. Danielle Bean reviewed a selection:

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is celebrated on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, just before beginning the penitential forty days of Lent that lead up to Easter in the Catholic liturgical year. Some Fat Tuesday traditions that Catholics observe today:


Christians first observed the traditional celebration of Mardi Gras, also known as "Carnival," years ago, when eggs and milk were among the foods forbidden by the Church during Lent. Feasting on rich foods, such as pancakes, made with eggs, milk, sugar, and butter was a practical way to use up your stores of these items while enjoying one final "feast" before beginning forty days of penance. Today, the Catholic Church does not forbid the consumption of eggs and milk during Lent, but the tradition of indulging before fasting remains. Cakes, doughnuts, and sweet pastries are traditional Mardi Gras fare.

One treat synonymous with Fat Tuesday is the King Cake. Tim Carman explained the history behind the dessert:

Little about the king cake suggests it's made for human pleasure. Its oval shape and doughy bloat invite unfavorable comparisons to underinflated inner tubes. Its neon-sugar colors are certifiably cartoonish, as gaudy as the beaded trinkets that fall from the skies on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.

And then there's the issue of the prize buried deep within the dough; any cake in which a diner is in danger of chomping down on a tiny plastic infant automatically places itself in the kitsch category. The king cake would seem to be the Jerry Lewis telethon of baked goods: an annual ritual, beloved by millions and way, way overwrought.

Of course, true believers of the multicolored cake will tell you that northerners live a bereft existence, separate and apart from the true New Orleans king cake, which is the centerpiece of Carnival parties from Jan. 6 right up to Fat Tuesday, the day before the Lenten deprivation kicks in. The cake's appeal becomes clearer the closer you get to the city limits and, conversely, becomes more comical the farther you travel from the voodoo-sexual-second-line cultural vortex of the Big Easy.

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