It’s time to break out your beads and get in your last bites of king cake – Mardi Gras time is here.
Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday. It’s also called Shrove Tuesday, Carnival Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday, depending on where the celebration is taking place.
No matter the name, it’s a day of revelry that includes parades, parties and gastronomic indulgence before the Christian fasting season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (February 14 in 2024). It marks the last day of the Carnival season, basically a six-week period of partying around the globe.
Mardi Gras is synonymous with Carnival celebrations in New Orleans, Venice and Rio, but the day is marked in similarly festive fashion around the world in countries with large Roman Catholic populations.
However, what began as a holiday rooted in religious tradition has become a cultural phenomenon, leading to parties for the sake of partying, and not necessarily in anticipation of 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
Whatever your motivation, here’s everything you need to know about Mardi Gras to be conversant in the holiday’s history.
The celebration dates back to the Romans
According to historians, festivities resembling Mardi Gras go back thousands of years to ancient Roman festivals celebrating the harvest season. After Christianity arrived in Rome, old traditions were incorporated into the new faith and debauchery became a prelude to the Lenten season.
This fusion resulted in a hedonistic period of boozing, masquerading and dancing with a heavy dose of religion.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, so did the pre-Lenten festivities. Along the way, new traditions were born and some old ones took on new incarnations. One of those Roman traditions became the sweet staple of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras known as the king cake.
During Saturnalia, a winter solstice celebration of Saturn, the god of agriculture, beans were baked into cakes to celebrate the harvest. Whoever found the bean was named “king of the day.” In the Middle Ages, Christianity appropriated the tradition for the festival of the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings’ Day.
Also known as Twelfth Night, Three Kings’ Day marks the start of the Carnival season each year on January 6. It commemorates the visit of the three kings – or wise men or magi – to the Christ child on the 12th night after his birth, for a celebration, gifts and feasting.
Christians in Spain, Latin America and the United States mark the occasion with parades, gifts and family feasts. Thousands of people gather each year in Mexico City to polish off a mile-long “Rosca de Reyes,” or king cake, a staple of the holiday. Elsewhere, families prepare the crown-shaped dessert at home.
The cake has a trinket or baby figurine baked inside it to symbolize Christ and is eaten throughout Carnival festivities. Just as in Roman times, the person who finds the trinket is crowned king or queen of the Carnival, a distinction that carries various duties depending on the culture, from preparing tamales for the next family party to riding on a parade float.
Shrove Tuesday is basically the same thing
Along the way, Shrove Tuesday emerged as the last day of Shrovetide, the week preceding the start of Lent. The word Shrovetide is the English equivalent of Carnival, which comes from the Latin words carnem levare, meaning “to take away the flesh.” “To shrive” means to hear confessions, according to Catholic theologian Father William P. Saunders.
“While this was seen as the last chance for merriment, and, unfortunately in some places, has resulted in excessive pleasure, Shrovetide was the time to cast off things of the flesh and to prepare spiritually for Lent,” he wrote in CatholicCulture.org.
To prepare for Lent, Christians prepared pancakes to deplete their stock of eggs, milk, butter and fat, giving rise to Pancake Day in England. As the tradition spread through Europe, it became Mardi Gras in France, where waffles and crepes are prepared as part of a lavish feast.
Mardi Gras in the New World
European colonists and slave traders brought the pre-Lenten festivities to the Americas, where they became huge celebrations throughout the Carnival season. Celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti include musical competitions, elaborate costumes, feasts and cultural shows at various points leading up to Mardi Gras, or Carnival Tuesday.
French settlers brought Mardi Gras to New Orleans and the Louisiana territory. The “Galette des Rois,” or king cake, came too, becoming a symbol of New Orleans’ brand of Mardi Gras.
The first recorded Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans is believed to have held in 1837. Over time, balls, parties and parades have spread out to take place throughout Carnival season, organized by social clubs called “Krewes.”
The tradition of “parade throws” is thought to have originated in the 1920s with the Rex Krewe, the city’s oldest social club, whose colors of purple (justice) gold, (power) and green (faith) have come to symbolize New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. After starting with necklaces, they moved onto coins called doubloons stamped with their logos, and other krewes adopted the practice.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no need for nudity to attract throws. Local historians say the trend emerged in the latter 20th century as Mardi Gras attracted more college-aged revelers.
While New Orleans is practically synonymous with Mardi Gras, doesn’t have a lock on the celebrations in the United States.
Another Gulf Coast city about 170 miles to the east – Mobile, Alabama – also has a long history with Mardi Gras, with lots of fashionable balls and special events leading up to the big day.
There can be heated debate between the two cities on which has bragging rights to claim the first celebration.
Other cities, mostly along the Gulf Coast area, also have notable Mardi Gras celebrations, including Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Galveston, Texas.
Cake fit for a king
Here’s a king cake recipe from Food52 that allows you to recreate the New Orleans-style magic in your own kitchen. It makes one large cake.
• 3/4 cup warm milk
• 2 1/4 teaspoons or one packet of dry yeast
• 1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon of sugar
• 1 stick of butter, melted and cooled
• 2 egg yolks
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Filling and topping
• 1 stick of butter
• 8 ounces cream cheese
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 1 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
• 1 plastic baby
• 2 cups powdered sugar
• 3 tablespoons milk
• Sanding sugar, marzipan circles, or other decorations in yellow, green, and purple
1. Combine the warm milk, yeast, and 1 teaspoon of sugar and let proof. While yeast is proofing, whisk together the butter, egg yolks, and vanilla extract. In a large bowl or bowl of a stand mixer, combine remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, flour, nutmeg, and salt.
2. When the yeast mixture is foamy, add that and the butter mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix to combine. Using a dough hook, or kneading by hand on a floured surface, work the dough (adding flour as needed) for 5 to 7 minutes until you have a smooth dough. Transfer dough to a greased bowl, cover with a damp towel, and let rise for 2 hours, until doubled in size. Begin making the filling as soon as the dough begins rising.
3. In a large sauce pan, melt together the butter and cream cheese. Stir in the brown sugar and continue stirring until the mixture starts to bubble. Remove it from heat, stir in the pecans, and then set it aside to cool while the dough finishes rising.
4. When the dough is finished rising, transfer it to a large piece of parchment paper and roll it out to a 9 X 13-inch rectangle. Spread the filling on evenly, leaving an inch along one of the long sides so that the filling doesn’t ooze out. Starting opposite of that end, roll up the dough like a jelly roll, sticking the baby in somewhere in the middle.
5. Grease an empty 28-ounce can and place it in the center of a large baking sheet that’s been lined with parchment. Gently wrap the dough roll around the can, seam side down, and pinch the ends well. Let rise for another half an hour.
6. Preheat oven to 375° F. Once the cake has gone through its second rising, bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the cake is a nice brown color. Remove the can as soon as the cake comes out of the oven. Let the cake cool completely before decorating.
7. To make the glaze, whisk together the powdered sugar and milk. If the consistency is too thick for your taste, add more milk a little bit at a time until it reaches the desired consistency. Once the cake is out of the oven and cooled, pour on the the glaze and then decorate as you wish. For my decoration, I kneaded liquid food coloring into marzipan, rolled it out, and then cut out circles. If you’d like to go the traditional route and use standing sugar, you can either use store-bought or make your own by placing a few tablespoons of white sugar in a Ziploc bag with a few drops of food coloring and shaking it up.
This story was first published in 2019 and updated for 2024.
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