King Cakes: Just for Carnival?
It will be here before you know it. If you’re not prepared, you need to step up your game. It’s not like you can get ready for the big day without effort. You need a plan for what to do if certain streets are blocked off. You need to know what groceries might be sold out of beer. You need a plan.
Because March 7 is less than two weeks away, and I will brook no mediocre gifts on the day of my birth. My favorite color is blue, I enjoy carbon steel kitchen knives, cast-iron cookware, Wagyu beef, and have a 32-inch waist. I will not disclose my inseam because that information is between me and my imaginary tailor.
Yesterday, at 8 a.m., I joined the other fathers with children in Section A of the pre-kindergarten class at my daughter’s school to help build a float. If I do say so myself, those guys did a fantastic job. You will not see a better float produced by fathers of pre-kindergarten children, and I don’t care what those people in Section B say. We had orange juice and King Cake afterward.
Today my daughter will parade around the playground at her school with the other kids in her class, following the float we made, and she and her classmates will throw beads to us and their grandparents and assorted onlookers. It will be sweeter than the King Cake we had yesterday. There won’t be as much cinnamon, unless I totally misunderstand the concept of a pre-kindergarten parade, but it will be sweeter.
I’ve lived in New Orleans for 40 of my 47 years, and I have no idea how to measure the last two days on a normal human scale. I know that fathers all over the country do things with their kids on certain days. I bet that in Bangor, they build lobster traps; in Miami, they carve oranges into decorative shapes; in Sonoma, they curate grapes; in Seattle, they teach their 4-year-olds how to hand-grind coffee beans and that “smug” is a verb.
But none of those places have King Cake or a real analogue.
When I travel for work, or when colleagues or clients from out of town come here, I proselytize about New Orleans. I do it with the full understanding that we will never have as many great regional Chinese restaurants as New York City or the sort of Mexican food you can get in Los Angeles or Chicago. We won’t have multiple high-quality Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants like D.C. or Thai restaurants like they do in Seattle/Portland.
We also can’t compete with megalopolises for the truly high-end restaurants – the type of places to which the Guide Michelin awards stars.
That doesn’t really matter. Because while we do have restaurants worthy of recognition by Michelin, what makes us great is not just the top-echelon places. It’s the fact that so many of us love food. So many of us live to eat, instead of the converse, and so many of us devote a great deal of thought to our next meal.
It’s the fact that you can have a great meal on the cheap
on a ploughman’s wage in New Orleans. Doubt me? Here’s a typical (no kidding) week’s lunch menu in New Orleans: red beans and rice with smoked sausage and/or a fried pork chop on Monday, dressed roast beef po’ boy on Tuesday, hot sausage on a bun Wednesday, ya-ka-mein on Thursday, and then a fried shrimp plate to round out the week. Doesn’t sound bad, does it?
Substitute for any option on that list (other than Monday, when red beans are sacrosanct) a banh mi with roast pork, Vietnamese sausage and chicken-liver pate; cheese-stuffed arepas with curtido; or slow-smoked pork ribs. Those are all options that, these days, are about as good as you’ll find anywhere else. And I don’t know about y’all, but I’m as comfortable with that banh mi being classified “local” as as I am with a fried oyster po’ boy, dressed, with extra pickles. (Which is how God intended a fried oyster po’ boy to be consumed.)
My wife is an editor and, I believe, the kind of person who chafes when a word like “literally” is suborned to mean the opposite of its dictionary definition from a mere decade ago. (I chafe as well, for the record). So I understand how some people would view “imported” cuisines as less than authentically New Orleans, but understanding doesn’t mean acceptance.
Our cooking incorporates traditions from several culinary backgrounds, and then there are off shoots of Creole cuisine, such as the style of Italian cooking we have here. Lots of po’ boy restaurants already use bread from Vietnamese bakeries, and there’s no reason to think that in 20 or 30 years, we won’t have adopted ingredients, techniques and recipes from other cultures into “New Orleans” food.
New Orleans has a great food tradition, and we better make sure that Creole cuisine doesn’t disappear. But that doesn’t mean we can’t welcome good food from anywhere else.