No one really knows where the Mardi Gras celebration started. Its roots go back to primitive times, when the approaching spring gave cause for raucous merrymaking. Later, the Greeks and Romans turned the observance into wild bacchanals.
The concerned Christian church tried unsuccessfully to stamp out the practice. A new tactic was tried: If you can't beat them, join them. The feast was absorbed into church ritual with the added ecclesiastical overtones of fasting and penance. The blowout became known as "carnelevarre," Latin for "farewell to flesh." This was the signal to have one last fling before settling down to be good.
New Orleans' world-famous festival is said to have begun in March 1699, when a party of homesick French explorers popped open champagne for America's first Mardi Gras. The French term means fat (gras) Tuesday (Mardi), the day before Ash Wednesday. The wild parades, floats, noisemakers and costumes all came much later.
Most of the people clogging the streets of the French Quarter are visitors. The natives have more discreet private parties that often go on for several days, moving from one elegant home to another.
You don't have to be in New Orleans, and you don't have to have an elegant home, to celebrate Mardi Gras, which falls on March 3 this year. All you need is the spirit to have a good party and eat some awfully good food, usually quite rich.
Keep in mind that the traditional colors of Mardi Gras are green, gold and purple, symbolizing faith, power and justice, respectively. If dinner will be buffet, which is best for a Mardi Gras party, use the streamers in those colors on all the tables.
Sprinkle play coins over the tables as souvenirs of doubloons, the coins tossed at carnival spectators by the costumed people riding on the floats. Beads, beads and more many-colored glass beads bring in yet another exuberant New Orleans' tradition.
Creole cooking, of course, should be featured. Etouffes and jambalayas are among the best-known Creole dishes. The first means smothered, as with a sauce or liquid, usually with a brown roux base. The latter is a rice dish highly seasoned and strongly flavored with any combination of beef, pork, fowl, smoked sausage or seafood.
Orange-glazed baked hams often are on the buffet table as well. Vegetables usually include eggplant, rice, okra and beans. Don't forget a huge tossed salad.
There are two traditional desserts: crepes, those paper-thin pancakes with an orange paste filling and the galette du roi, the king's cake. The cake is a rich yeast dough containing candied fruit, iced in several colors, and containing a bean or pecan half. ,, Whoever finds this treasure in his or her portion is declared king or queen.
Now if you really want to serve a Fat Tuesday dish, try this snappy cheese and hot pepper chicken from that classic Creole cookbook "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" (William Morrow). Lean, this recipe is not.
Cheese and hot pepper chicken
! Makes 8 servings.
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon ground red pepper
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
* 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/4 cups flour
2 (2 1/2 - to 3-pound) chickens, cut into 16 pieces, room temperature
vegetable oil for frying
2 2/3 cups chopped green bell peppers (divided use)
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped green chilies
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons ground red pepper
3/4 teaspoon white pepper
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped jalapeno pepper
4 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
1 1/2 cups grated Cheddar cheese
4 cups hot cooked rice
Combine seasoning mix in small bowl. Combine 1 tablespoon of seasoning mix with flour in a plastic or paper bag. Remove excess fat from chicken and sprinkle with remaining seasoning mix, patting it in by hand. Dredge chicken in seasoned flour; reserve leftover flour.
Heat 1/2 inch of oil in large skillet, preferably not non-stick, to 350 degrees. Fry chicken in batches, skin side down first, just until light brown and crispy, about 2 to 4 minutes per side. Lower heat if drippings in pan start to brown. Drain chicken on paper towels.
Carefully pour hot oil into glass measuring cup, leaving as much sediment as possible in the skillet; return 1/2 cup hot oil to skillet. Add 2 cups of bell peppers, onions and 2/3 cup of the green chilies; turn heat to high and stir well to mix vegetables with sediment in the pan. Cook until onions start to brown, 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add bay leaves, salt, minced garlic and the red, white and black peppers; stir well.
Then sprinkle 3 tablespoons of reserved flour on vegetable mixture and stir thoroughly. Stir in jalapeno pepper and cook about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally (lower heat if sticking excessively). Stir in 1 cup of stock and scrape pan bottom well. Stir in 2 cups more stock and stir. Remove from heat.
Place chicken in a 5 1/2 -quart pot or large Dutch oven. Add vegetable mixture (can be prepared in advance up to this point, covered, and refrigerated), then remaining 1 cup stock; stir well. Bring to a boil, and then simmer over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and being careful not to let mixture scorch.
Add remaining 2/3 cup bell peppers, 1/3 cup green chilies, the cream and sour cream. Bring to boil over medium heat, stirring fairly constantly. Then stir in the cheeses and cook just until cheese melts, stirring constantly. Serve immediately, allowing about 1/2 cup rice and 2 pieces of chicken per serving, topped with about 2/3 cup sauce.