Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, and a Recipe for Macaroni and Cheese
New Orleanians have a particular relationship with death. I’m not completely sure the reason- perhaps it’s because the city is situated on an inhospitable sliver of delta land surrounded by powerful waters, carrying the knowledge that the waters could overwhelm them at any time. Maybe it’s the city’s Latin roots, or the history of disease the waters brought with them, or even the ghosts of the many slaves bought and sold through its port.
This relationship is never so clearly on display as it is at Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday- flip sides of a coin.
Mardi Gras is about defying death- staring it down eyeball to eyeball, drinking, dancing and partying it down.
Of course, death always wins out in the end. There’s a tradition at St. Augustine’s Church in the Tremé, of Mardi Gras Indians meeting the Skeletons (another tribe of Mardi Gras revelers) early in the morning on Mardi Gras to trade taunts back and forth, but the Skeletons have the last word, shouting to the Indians’ Big Chief, “That’s all right, you’re coming where I am.”
Then the Indians and Skeletons, along with the rest of the city, head out for a long day of non-stop revelry.
But on Ash Wednesday, the big party is over. The city is noticeably subdued. It is the day that the faithful receive ashes on their foreheads, and the church reminds them, and all of us, “Remember man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
It is also the beginning of the Lenten season of abstinence, where Catholic New Orleans forgoes eating meat, for either all of Lent, or for certain days, such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Of course, when you’re eating dishes like this decadent macaroni and cheese, it hardly seems like much of a sacrifice.
My mother and father were part of a large community of expat New Orleanians in Los Angeles, and often attended gatherings and parties where, naturally, food played a big role. Mac and cheese was often on the menu.
“Why don’t you ever make macaroni and cheese?” mother says my father would ask when they returned home.
“I always avoided it because of the fat”, she told me.
Ah, yes- I grew up in a household where healthy eating was a concern. We had desserts and sodas only on holidays, and margarine (it was the 50’s) was the norm rather than butter.
Her efforts were lost on me. When I went away to college, and tasted sweet cream butter-which was served at all our meals, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
And now, after eating macaroni and cheese at other’s tables, I (occasionally) make it for myself. I have learned, as my brother says, that I can’t make it at home for just myself because I’ll just eat the whole thing.
So invite some guests over for this meatless treat, and chase the Ash Wednesday blues away. BTW, I always serve mine with Sautéed Greens.