New Orleans Does January Much Better Than London

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Happy New Year from London. Yes, I have excluded a festive exclamation mark, and deliberately so. It is generally agreed that January is when London is at its least happy, and most miserable.

Here the first month of the year is about cutting back after Christmas spending, New Year’s resolutions, and the more recent British tradition of having an alcohol-free “Dry January”. This week my email inbox has been full of 2 for 1 offers for the restaurants, West End shows and other attractions that would have been bursting with people just a couple of weeks ago. The result is a quiet and depressing city, usually cold but these days rarely brightened by snow.

It’s not supposed to be like this. As everyone knows from the famous carol, there are twelve days of Christmas. In the UK, most people pretty much regard the whole of the week between Christmas and New Year as holiday season, even if they have to work. But by the first days of January, Christmas seems to be well and truly over in many people’s minds.

I still keep my decorations up until the 6th of January as old tradition dictates, but this week have seen many balding Christmas trees left out with the rubbish. When I was a child, my parents would go to Twelfth Night parties, but these seem not to happen any more.

There is a good case for extending the fun even further into the new year than its first six days. In a brilliant column for Time Out London a couple of years ago, Giles Coren said he thought we Londoners had got it all wrong. Why do we save all the festive spirit (in London, this essentially means alcohol) for the busy days of December and allow none for quiet, dim January?

“It’s just nuts,” he wrote. “We’re doing it all the wrong way round. What booze is for is for cheering you up when life is shit. It’s for getting you through the day when there is nothing to do and you feel like you don’t have any friends. Like in, for example, January. And the one time you do not need it is in the month running up to Christmas.”

Things are done differently, and I would say better, in New Orleans. Here 6th of January marks the beginning of Mardi Gras season, and of course its festivities. One of my favourites of this day’s events I’ve read about (having never been in the city in January) is the ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows carnival krewe. The Phellows board, in costume, the St Charles streetcar and proceed, they say, to “sip champagne, eat king cake, dance, and let fly with the very first beads of the Mardi Gras season”.

A month and often longer of more king cake (see image), parties and parades follows, culminating in the glories of Mardi Gras day itself. Lent also follows, of course, but somehow giving up something festive when you can see and feel spring coming seems like a better idea than doing so during the very darkest days of the year.

Image: praline3001

In New Orleans For Mardi Gras

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First, I’d like to apologise for the delay in updating this blog since my last post. In my life I’ve moved from a slightly chaotic period to one of relative calm, which seems appropriate as we’ve now moved from carnival season into Lent.

But in this post I’ll be looking back to carnival, as this year I was lucky enough to be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras for the first time. I’ve always visited before during high summer and, despite the heat locals always say they hate and the fact that it’s supposed to be slow season, I’ve always loved the city as it is then, stretched out and languid.

But I’d been told that the weeks between Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras day itself, New Orleans’ carnival season – and yes, it is a season here not just a day, is the time when the city is most itself. So when the opportunity arose to visit at this time, I couldn’t say no.

Sadly pancakes (and work commitments) were calling me home for the big Tuesday itself, but I was in New Orleans for the week immediately preceding it and got to witness seven of the city’s Mardi Gras parades. These, which range from elaborate processions of floats, marching bands and dancers to chilled-out communal fancy dress walking parties, are some of the high points of carnival festivities in the city, and my focus in this post – I’m planning to cover other carnival topics in later ones.

But before I get onto the highs, I feel I should deal with the very few downers to my week. Let’s start with the cold. Having left a wintry London behind me, I was hoping for some subtropical sun, or at least a bit of spring, but the New Orleans I found was cold, cloudy, and rainy and quite a lot like, well, how London is most of the year. I was impressed with how NOLA-ites went about in sports jackets and shorts, but to see what was happening on the streets I had to pull on the winter coat that I’d been hoping not to have to get out of my suitcase until I landed at Heathrow again.

Then there was getting hit in the eye with a flying doubloon. This was a parade throw, of which more later, and gave me a lovely bloodshot eye just a little bit too early for Halloween. But on the plus side, I think I can now tick one more item off that long, long list of “only in New Orleans” experiences. And I got to keep the doubloon.

But these aspects of my trip were in every way outweighed by the pluses. I had king cake for breakfast every day (if you don’t know what that it, see my last post). And because I was eating breakfast by myself mostly, I got the baby every time. Which I think must make me New Orleans royalty – at least I felt that way every time I started my day by getting psyched up on black coffee, sweet cream cheese, and purple and green icing. Once again, only in New Orleans…

Then there were my parade throws, the freebies every float rider, cyclist or walker in a New Orleans parade since the dawn of time has been obliged by law (or compelled by some mystical Mardi Gras magic at least) to fling out into the cheering crowds that line their routes. Beads are traditional and I certainly got plenty of those, particularly in the city’s carnival colours of purple, green and gold, but what follows is rough inventory of just some of the rest of my loot.

Metre-long ropes of plastic pearls, a gummy yellow crown that flashes green when you press a button on its bottom, a set of makeup brushes, a soft toy rat, a monogrammed (and hologrammed) drinking cup, some Reeses Pieces (particularly precious as these American delicacies are not easily available in the UK), and a Mardi Gras Barbie. I don’t feel I’m exaggerating that much if I say that I now never have to buy Christmas decorations or, at a push, Christmas presents, ever again.

Then there’s the sheer spectacle of the parades themselves. The largest ones are confections of jazz bands, blinking lights and flaming torches, and fabulously elaborate and witty floats, some of which you need a good knowledge of New Orleans lore to understand properly. My favourite one, in the fashion-themed Muses parade, showed governor and potential presidential candidate Bobby Jindal as a suited and booted “Insincere Sucker”. Get it?

But I also loved the magic in microcosm of the smaller (mostly) walking and pushbiking parades, like science fiction-themed Chewbacchus or just-for-dogs (with their humans as escorts) Barkus. Both of these parade group (known as a “krewe” in the city) names are plays on the name of one of the biggest players in New Orleans Mardi Gras: “superkrewe” Bacchus, which is fitting given the way in which these smaller krewes lovingly reimagine the traditions of carnival into images that are all their own, a defining impulse of New Orleans carnival across the the city as a whole.

Chewbacchus gave us a dreamy flashlight-lit sequence of over 100 “Rolling Elliots“, dressed in red hoodies and riding bikes with milk floats in them in a homage to film classic E.T. that made me feel nine again.

Meanwhile, my highlight of rainy afternoon-conquering Barkus was seeing a dolled-up pooch perched imperiously in a minature New Orleans beautifully rendered in cardboard to fit the krewe’s 2014 theme: “DOGZILLA: Barkus Licks the Crescent City”.

And these weren’t even the best things about my Mardi Gras experience in New Orleans. What I think I actually liked the most was the interaction between parade-goers. I had all kinds of interesting conversations, had the good fortune to stand next to someone one night who gave an informed and passionate commentary on everything that went past and much else of New Orleans besides, and witnessed many acts of kindness in the crowd, from the giving of simple pieces of advice to sharing out throws to summoning medical help.

These made me realise that in New Orleans being at a parade, even as an outsider, somehow makes you, by some alchemy of opalescence, part of it and therefore, in a small way, part of this city’s long, broad, deep and extraordinary carnival tradition, that still remains all its own.

Cake Season

This time of year is king cake season in New Orleans. This starchy, sugary, often sticky, and totally scrummy sponge has its origins in the French gallette des rois, a treat for Twelfth Night to celebrate the visit of the three Magi to the baby Jesus. Like its French ancestor, New Orleans king cake comes with a baby, bean or coin hidden inside it, and the person who find this in their slice can claim to be king or queen for the day.

However, king cake has departed in style from galette des rois. In Paris these days, you’ll get a golden brown puff pastry tart with an almond filling, while in New Orleans you’re more like to find something akin to a brioche, often filled with Louisiana pecans and draped in sparkly icing.

Another difference between old and new world customs in this area is that gallette des rois is only eaten on Twelfth Night, while king cake is found in New Orleans from Twelfth Night until Lent – a.k.a carnival season. I always enjoy the series New Orleans newspaper the Times-Picayune, runs on king cakes in the city during this time featuring a different bakery every day. And I nearly always find myself checking if they deliver to the UK…

Once I even tried to make king cake myself (see photo). I don’t think mine would bear comparison to one from the Crescent City, but I took it into work and my colleagues did gamely eat it.

I’ve never been in New Orleans at this time of year to sample the real thing, but I understand it’s customary for colleagues and friends there to take turns to buy cakes to share, with the “king” or “queen” being obliged to get the next one.

We don’t have an equivalent seasonal tradition here, but making cakes and biscuits all year round is surging in popularity in the UK, as shown by the huge viewing figures for TV show The Great British Bake-Off, which completed its fourth series this year featuring a particularly fabulous ex-colleague of mine who I think deserved to win.

I’m a huge fan of this TV show, and it’s due in part to watching it that I discovered a baking tradition Londoners can call their own, closely linked to a part of the city little more than a cupcakes’s throw from where I live.

Tottenham Cake, named after the north London neighbourhood whose name it bears, is a simple oblong sponge, topped with pale pink icing and cut into squares. Unlike king cake, it doesn’t have a particular season, and is available all year round. However, like king cake it does have its origins in religious belief.

Tottenham cake was first made by Quakers living in this area, then a rural settlement some distance from central London. The shade of the icing comes from their use of the fruit from the mulberry trees growing in the garden of their meeting house (which are still there) to colour it.

The confection fits with the Quakers’ egalitarian and community-focused way of life. Like king cake it’s traditionally baked by friends for each other, and often with children in mind, and its square shape means it’s easy to transport, divide evenly and eat.

What’s more, the’s recipe’s short list of simple, cheap ingredients and its straightforward method mean that, whether it’s made at home or by a bakery, Tottenham cake is a treat that everyone can afford, tuck into and enjoy – and whatever city you’re in and at whatever time of year, that’s surely the definition of a good bit of baking.