French Quarter Fest

Submitted by Cindy

The French Quarter Festival is the intro to New Orleans’ jam packed spring season, and of course we were there!  In its 30th year, it’s the largest free music festival in the southeast.  We hit the event rather late on its Saturday afternoon.  With rain the day before and more predicted, a whopping 303,000 people were enjoying the beautiful day.  Our strategy was to avoid the crowds by patronizing the smaller bands, and we discovered some gems.

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We love our festivals for the quirkiness, especially the people watching.  But music is the heart of the event, so here’s some samples.  Sorry I can’t give much attribution to the “unofficial” groups who play for the love of music and the occasional tip.

Here’s Doreen’s, a Dixieland band with soul.  The trombone player was a character!

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How to Boil Crawfish

Submitted by Cindy

Crawfish boils are a rite of spring in New Orleans.  They combine two of our favorite activities – eating good food and visiting with friends.  We recently spent a picture perfect Saturday afternoon in a beautiful setting eating to our heart’s content.  Here’s the star of the show.

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We are lucky here to have boiled crawfish readily available.  You can buy a few pounds, still hot from the pot, at a lot of groceries this time of year.  There are specialty caterers who will bring their equipment on site to cook for larger parties.  But it’s a lot more fun to cook them yourself.

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My friend Chris, a master crawfish boiler when he’s not behind his desk at an investment firm, shared his cooking secrets with me.  It’s as much an art as a science, and the results are delicious!

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City of the Dead

Submitted by Cindy

As Easter approaches our thoughts turn to loved ones who are no longer with us.  I made a trip recently to Metairie Cemetery, where my family is buried, to place flowers on the tombs.  While newer than a number of the city’s cemeteries, it is one of the largest and most historic.

View - Metairie Cemetery

It was previously the site of a horse racing track, Metairie Race Course, founded in 1838.  During the Civil War it was used as Confederate Camp Moore.  The track went bankrupt during reconstruction, and the site was chartered as a cemetery in 1872, with its design influenced by the oval layout.  In 1991 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The cemetery is the resting place of over 9,000 people, including 9 Louisiana governors, 7 New Orleans mayors, 49 kings of Carnival, and 3 Confederate generals.  With the largest collection of elaborate marble tombs and funeral statuary in the city, the artistry alone is well worth a trip.

Confederate monument

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Fish on Friday

Submitted by Cindy

New Orleans is a very Catholic city.  I’m not Catholic, but I heartily endorse one of the faith’s tenets – the “sacrifice” of eating seafood as opposed to meat.  On a recent Friday during Lent, I decided to honor the occasion by featuring Louisiana specialties from the sea.

For starters, we had Crawfish Bisque.  I have to confess that it wasn’t my creation – it was stashed in the infamous freezer after a catered party I hosted.  The main course was Trout Pecan accompanied by a rice pilaf.  My husband caught the trout while on a male bonding office outing, and it arrived home cleaned and filleted.  (Any time, dear!)  The dessert was a praline parfait.

 

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Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon

Submitted by Cindy

On a recent Sunday morning 16,000 runners from all 50 states and 23 foreign countries took to the New Orleans streets.  My running days are over, but I can’t resist going to cheer them on, and sympathize with their pain.  It was a perfect, cool winter day, with the sun peeking over the oak trees as the runners filled both sides of St. Charles Avenue.

In New Orleans we can turn any event into a party!    A jazz band from Tulane University started up at 7 AM.  Cheerleaders from a local high school sang their encouragement, waving big records as part of their routine.  Neighbors lined the route just as for a parade, though most were drinking coffee rather than the typical beer.  We brought our coonhound to cheer them on, and she provided a welcome distraction to the monotony of 26 miles. Read more…

Throw Me a Cabbage!

Submitted by Cindy

We have lots of folks of Irish ancestry in New Orleans.  Irish immigrants in the 19th century dug the canals that drain the city, and we will forever be grateful for their backbreaking contributions.  It is no surprise that we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with not one, but four parades – Uptown (starting in the Irish Channel), Metairie (an adjacent suburb), and two in the French Quarter/Downtown area.  Yesterday I put on my green T-shirt and fuzzy headband with shamrocks on springs and headed for a party in the ‘burbs.

These parades are not known for their artistic merit.  They are a great place to watch the antics of the marchers (who typically have consumed a bit of beer), hang out with friends, and most importantly, to catch the complements to your corned beef.

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Cream Soup a la John Besh

Submitted by Cindy

I attended a program last week featuring the noted chef John Besh as speaker.   A native son, he is “dedicated to promoting the foodways of Southern Louisiana”.  Chef Besh owns nine restaurants and hosts a syndicated TV show, but he gets equal satisfaction from cooking for his wife and four sons.   He prepared cream cauliflower soup for us, a simple dish in line with his latest book – My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking. 

This is my kind of cooking – no firm recipe, just throw in a bit of this or that.  Use ingredients that you have on hand, and feel free to make substitutions.  (I doubt if my creations would turn out nearly as tasty as his!)   Of course, a couple of non-staple items can add a special pizzazz.  While the soup was cooking, Chef Besh gave lots of cooking tips, and entertained us with stories from his cooking career. Read more…

Container Veggies

Submitted by Cindy

March 2 is the last spring frost date in New Orleans, and I usually try to get my first vegetables planted around then to beat the summer heat.  That was my project for a recent cold weekend, with lows in the mid-30’s but no frost.  Since yards in the old part of town tend to be small, I’ve been container gardening for over 20 years.

In went the tomatoes and peppers.  Also for good measure bibb lettuce (a little late), green beans, and a basil plant.  I passed on the eggplant for now even though they were available because cold weather supposedly stunts their growth.  I usually plant them in the beginning of April.  The okra will get their turn sometime in early summer.

 

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Rex Paraphernalia

Submitted by Cindy

Rex (or the School of Design as it is officially named) is the big parade on Mardi Gras day.  Its monarch serves as the King of Carnival.  The organization is quite civic in nature, with its Pro Bono Publico foundation donating over two million dollars to local public school initiatives since its inception.  Over the years we have collected a variety of Rex memorabilia.

Each year the organization issues a ducal badge to its members.  There is a corresponding ladies’ pin, which members may purchase for wives and female friends or relatives.  Here are the ones for 2013, reflecting the theme “All Creatures Great and Small”.  It is inspired by the gauntlets worn by the 1886 Rex.

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Deck the Halls with Carnival Color

Submitted by Cindy

Carnival parades start in earnest this weekend, so I figured it was about time to decorate the house.  Purple, green and gold (especially purple) tends to clash with my décor, so the challenge is to achieve a festive look that you can live with for a couple of weeks.

Here is the dining room centerpiece, using ceramic masks that were favors at a formal dinner we attended, and beads in a cut glass bowl.  The gold “dubloons” are parade throws that typically reflect the year’s theme.  These are from Rex.

 

I did the pillow years ago to display pins given as “krewe favors” by maskers after a “callout” dance at a carnival ball.  Now, every king sends his lady friends a custom designed pin to mark his reign, and I have a whole drawer full of memories of various big nights.

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Dancin’ to the Mardi Gras

Submitted by Cindy

Music is the essence of Mardi Gras – you can’t have a parade, a carnival ball, or even a party without it.  Our carnival music reflects our joie de vivre spirit, our desire to let the good times roll.  The classic hits range from funk to R&B to brass band, but they have one thing in common – they make you want to dance.  To get you in the mood, I’m going to let you listen to some of them.

Perhaps the epitome of Mardi Gras songs is Professor Longhair’s “Go to the Mardi Gras”.  Can you hear the parade coming down the street?

Next, try Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time”.  His one hit was big enough to propel him into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

Here’s “Mardi Gras Mambo”, by the Hawkettes.  This little known group would evolve into the Meters, the standard bearer for New Orleans music.  The lyrics are great.

Finally, there is “Second Line” by Stop, Inc.  If you’re actually part of a parade, you’re the first line; if you’re just dancing behind it, you’re in the second line.

There are many other classics, such as the Meters “Hey Pocky A-Way”, “Iko Iko”  (originally by Sugar Boy Crawford but popularized by the Dixie Cups), and, “Big Chief, Pt. 2“, also by Professor Longhair.

Are you dancing?

Report from the Rex Den

Submitted by Cindy

The central command post for the Rex parade is housed in a nondescript industrial building.  For most of the year it just serves as a workshop for float construction, but really comes alive with activity as Mardi Gras day approaches.  I recently attended “Ladies Day at the Den”, and wanted to share some photos with you.

The theme for this year is “All Creatures Great and Small”, a line taken from an 1848 poem by Cecil Alexander.   I can’t show you the floats for this year, but they always beautifully and artistically develop the chosen theme.  Since they are built on the chassis of old cotton wagons, they shimmy down the street, adding to the magic of the presentation.  Tractors now replace the mules that originally pulled the floats.

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Costume de Rigueur

Submitted by Cindy

Invitations to old line Carnival balls invariably contain the phrase “costume de rigueur”.   You may know the attire for men under such terms as “full dress”, “white tie”, or “tails”.  For ladies it means a floor length evening gown – no tea length or dressy pants permitted.

Ladies have it easy, but the process of getting dressed for men can be a bit daunting.  I’m going to walk you through it.  Here is the end result that you are after.  (The mask is normally not a part of the attire, but my model is shy.)

 

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No Bake King Cake

Submitted by Cindy

Have you ever wanted to make a Mardi Gras king cake but were turned off by the complicated yeast bread recipes?  Here’s a quickie recipe with beautiful results – and no cooking necessary.

I attended a presentation today given by Cindy Pagragan of Cindy’s Sweet Sensations.  She showed us slides of her exquisite novelty and wedding cakes – have you ever seen one in the shape of a castle?  She taught us some fascinating things about cake icings, such as the trade-offs of transfat vs. smoothness and stability.  But what I really want to share with you is her creative king cake recipe.  This is the secret ingredient:

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Mardi Gras Tablescapes (and Valentine’s Too)

Submitted by Cindy

New Orleans is in for a busy holiday period, with Valentine’s Day coming just two days after Mardi Gras.  My friend Sherry, a talented designer, gave an inspiring presentation today on festive table ideas.

Sherry had great advice for us novice decorators.  Don’t be afraid to experiment.  Shop from your closets and attics first, and think of new uses for your old objects.  Discount stores such as Target and Tuesday morning – or even drugstores – can be inexpensive sources of novel accessories.  Let’s look at some of her tablescapes to get the creative juices flowing.

Mardi Gras décor does not have to be gaudy – astromania and lilacs combine to provide a pleasing purple theme for this table.

The same principal is seen here, where pastels carry out the purple, green and gold theme.  Note the crown, one of our favorite carnival symbols. Read more…