Lent, the Christian season of penance and introspection leading up to Easter Sunday, begins on Ash Wednesday. In most Catholic cultures, Lent is a season of ritual fasting and the preceding few days were considered a time to use up all the rich, fatty foods in the larder before they became forbidden. The Tuesday night preceding Lent, known – depending on where you are – as Mardis Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”), Shrove Tuesday (“to shrive” means to confess one’s sins), or Carnival (theoretically derived from “carne vale,” Late Latin for “farewell to flesh”) was the culmination of a period of feasting and festivities.
Here in the U.S., Mardis Gras celebrations are an important part of the culture of New Orleans. There are a series of parades and enormous balls and parties, but people also celebrate with friends and family in their homes and social clubs across the city. As you might imagine, enormous quantities of seafood are involved.
Fishing families in Louisiana recovered from the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita only to be devastated by the results of the BP oil spill last year. Many fishing grounds and oyster beds were closed for a period of time.
While long-term outcomes may not be discernable for some time to come, most fishing areas are open again and the oyster beds are once more up and running. Fishing families are still struggling as demand for Gulf Seafood has yet to return to its former level. According to Poppy Tooker, a keen observer of the local culinary scene, people in Louisiana are consuming Gulf seafood at levels similar to those prior to the oil spill, but demand from the rest of the country is lagging behind.
Being a historically majority Catholic city, New Orleans culture reflects the emphasis on seafood during both Mardis Gras and Lent. During Lent, people turn to seafood because it’s not meat: during Mardis Gras, people choose to make seafood dishes because they’re so good.
This year Mardis Gras falls on Tuesday, March 8th. I’m planning on celebrating by making a big pot of Poppy’s seafood gumbo.
Poppy Tooker gives a lesson in how to make a world-class seafood gumbo (see video above). Pay special attention to her instructions regarding how and when to add the onions: the timing determines the deep color and flavor of the roux (the cooked oil and flour base upon which all gumbos rely). Be sure, also, to sauté the okra separately to keep it from getting slimy.
Here’s Poppy’s Seafood Gumbo recipe.
When choosing ingredients for a seafood gumbo, be sure to check out our guide to ocean-friendly choices.
If you can’t find the “gumbo crabs” (the small crabs that Poppy refers to), add lump crab meat instead. Stone and Dungeness crabs are good choices, as are King crabs from the U.S.
There are lots of good options when it comes to shrimp from the US and Canada.
Bobby Flay challenged Poppy to a gumbo throw down. You can see the results in this two-part video.
Part One of the Gumbo Throw Down with Bobby Flay:
And here’s part two – including the denouement!
I want to thank all of my New Orleans friends who helped me to prepare this post and who all said, “Don’t bother trying to reach us on Tuesday. We’ll be back in the office on Wednesday, drinking black coffee, but on Tuesday we won’t be in.” Lessez les bon temps roulez!