WHAT IS FAT TUESDAY?

Mardi Gras is celebrated many different ways around the globe, but eating well is a common theme.

BRIEF HISTORY

Mardi Gras — French for Fat Tuesday — refers to the practice of eating fatty foods on the day before Ash Wednesday, which signals the start of the Christian Lenten season, the 40 days before Easter that is generally marked by fasting.

A celebration prior to the fasting season of Lent is common in many cultures, and is also known as carnival or shrove-tide. Here are a few examples of how different places around the world celebrate in abundance, before embracing abstinence (at least in theory).

For most, Fat Tuesday conjures images of beads, beer, and the Big Easy (New Orleans). Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is a Christian holiday/ cum pop culture phenomenon that dates back thousands of years to pagan spring and fertility rites. Also known as Carnival, it is celebrated in several nations across the globe — predominantly those with large Roman Catholic populations — on the day before the religious season of lent.

When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate some pagan traditions like the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia into the new faith – a much easier task than abolishing them outright. As a result, the debauchery and excess of Carnival season became a prelude to the 40 days of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.

Mardi Gras spread from Rome across Europe where it then crossed the oceans to the colonies of the New World.

mardi gra flagCOLORS OF MARDI GRA

The traditional colors of the New Orleans Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. All three colors were used by the Catholic Church throughout history and thus continued to be used in relation to Mardi Gras which was Catholic in origin.   Purple represents Justice; Green represents Faith, and Gold represents Power

MARDI GRA AROUND THE WORLD   (Information   curiosity of   http://www.epicurious.com/)

BELGIAN

Before dawn on the day of Mardi Gras, a drumbeat summons the residents of Binche, a Belgian town of 32,000 near the French border, into the streets. They come to chase away winter and participate in a folk tradition, dating back to the 14th century, that UNESCO has designated a cultural treasure in the same class as Japan’s Nôgaku Theater and Lithuania’s symbolic cross crafting. After the early wake-up call, a breakfast of Champagne and oysters is customary. During the carnival, you’ll see Pierrot, Harlequin, and peasant costumes, but the central characters are the Gilles—local men wearing wax masks, wooden clogs, and elaborate black, red, and yellow costumes that are stuffed with hay and adorned with white collars and bells. In the mid-afternoon, nearly 1,000 Gilles converge on the town’s Grand Place, trade their masks for large ostrich-feather headdresses, sing, dance, and pelt the crowd with blood oranges, a symbol of fertility.

BRAZIL

If you’re planning to give up meat for Lent (and even if you’re not), chowing down beforehand in Brazil is the ultimate indulgence. A serving of feijoada completa, a hearty meat-and-bean stew widely considered the Brazilian national dish, satisfies even the strongest carnivorous cravings. Interpretations vary by region and cook, but the dish may include corned beef, pork sausage, pigs’ tails and feet, and bacon. Feijoada has strong Portuguese influences, but the Brazilians have reworked it and made it their own—much as they have with Carnaval. While Salvador’s street festival is arguably a better party, Rio’s Carnaval is the biggest in the world. The whole city is overtaken by festivities and street parties for weeks, but the main attractions are the parading samba schools battling it out for supremacy in the Oscar Niemeyer–designed Sambódromo.

CANADA

Beaver Tails and Caribou are on the menu at the Québec Winter Carnival. But don’t worry vegetarians: The Beaver Tail is actually a fried-dough treat topped with cinnamon and sugar, while Caribou is the alias for a boozy mix of port, sherry, brandy, and vodka, served in a hollowed-out cane. (Sugar-shack sweets, such as maple taffy on snow, are readily available, too.) The annual winter celebration was introduced by 19th-century French transplants as a Mardi Gras festival, and later reimagined as a smorgasbord of Québécois culture. Hundreds of thousands of festivalgoers attend annually, although only 50 or so are brave enough to don swimsuits for the snow bath, a triple dip into the white stuff. The carnival mascot, Bonhomme—a cross between a snowman and Ghostbusters’ Stay Puff Marshmallow Man—oversees the 17-day event, which includes the construction of an ice palace at the Place de l’Assemblée Nationale, snow sculpture competitions that attract artists from around the world, and parades with floats and dance troupes. And the annual canoe race on the treacherous Saint Lawrence River, usually clogged with ice at this time of year, is more riveting than it may sound.

DENMARK

Being hit with a bundle of twigs and beating a black cat out of a barrel doesn’t sound very festive.  Perhaps you’ve never experienced Denmark’s Fastelavn, a Shrovetide celebration that was secularized after the Protestant Reformation. Children still rouse their parents from bed with ritual flogging.  Thankfully, the cat has been replaced by candy, making the barrel similar to a piñata. As on Halloween, children dress up in costumes and go door-to-door, singing a little ditty that references fastelavnsboller, sweet bread sometimes prepared with whipped cream in the middle (“Buns up, buns down, buns in my tummy, If I don’t get any buns, I’ll make trouble”). Handouts of money or candy are more common—children on a cream-puff-and-candy sugar high should, after all, be taken seriously.

FRANCE

Nice’s Carnaval, which dates back to 1294 and is today the largest in France, includes many iconic trappings of a Mardi Gras celebration. Parades of floats topped with papier-mâché “big heads” make their way down the Place Masséna (the procession is illuminated at night); street performers add to the entertainment; and for the finale, an effigy of King Carnaval is burned and fireworks light up the sky. But the centerpiece of the annual fête is the Flower Battle. A tradition of exchanging bouquets and decorating carriages in the 19th century grew into a gorgeous parade of blossom-bedecked floats; since 2005, the decorations have synced up with each year’s Carnaval theme (the King of Sport theme for 2012 is in honor of the upcoming London Olympics). Instead of beads, costumed revelers riding the floats toss up to 100,000 flowers into the crowd. Even ganses, a Niçoise variation on fried dough (similar to beignets and bugnes), get a festive flourish of orange flower water.

ITALY

The enchanting and elegant Venetian Carnevale is one of the world’s great excuses to play dress-up. The wearing of masks originated sometime during the Republic of Venice, which lasted from the early Middle Ages until 1797. It was a way to maintain the social hierarchy by allowing the lower classes to feel temporarily equal to the aristocracy (emphasis on temporary). By the time the republic fell to Napoleon in 1797, the allure of anything-goes anonymity had helped make Carnevale a fashionable tourist attraction, and when the event was reinstated in the 20th century, the costumed crowds returned in masse. The iconic Bauta mask (worn by men and women, often with a cloak and tricorn hat) conceals the whole face but, conveniently, won’t impede gorging on frittelle (doughnuts, sometimes prepared with a sweet or savory filling) or galani (fried pastry). Theater performances, a mask competition, a candlelit water parade, and elaborate balls mark the season—a marquee event is the Cavalchina Grand Ball at La Fenice, but unless you’re a patron of the arts or boldface name, good luck getting a ticket.

MALTA

In the 16th century, Malta’s carnival included jousting matches among the Knights of the Order of St. John. That fighting spirit is still alive and well, though these days, the Maltese battle for the most ostentatious float design—hydraulic action, confetti canons, Day-Glo colors, and blaring music encouraged. The carnival’s signature sweet, prinjolata, is equally gaudy and fun: A frothy sponge cake–based mound frosted in whipped cream and decorated with pine nuts, candied cherries, and a Jackson Pollock–like drizzle of chocolate. Malta’s capital of Valletta plays host to the annual float competition, masked balls, and parades, while the Grotesque (or Macabre) Carnival takes place in Nadur on the island of Gonzo: On the five nights before Ash Wednesday, locals take to the streets in creative, satirical, and sometimes downright creepy costumes.

RUSSIA

During Maslenitsa, blini—the crêpe-thin golden pancakes topped with caviar, smoked fish, sour cream, butter, or cheese—are the stars. More specifically, they’re considered symbolic representations of the sun in this ancient festival, which blends a pagan rite of spring with Russian Orthodox pre-Lenten (and pre-Lenin) rituals. Also known as “butter week,” in honor of one of the rich foods the church prohibits once Lent begins, Maslenitsa was nixed from the Russian social calendar under Soviet rule, and for decades was only celebrated privately. But since 2001, Moscow’s Vasilevskiy Spusk, an extension of Red Square located between St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Moscow River, has hosted an annual weeklong festival, with a fairy-tale-inspired village, food stalls, live music, games, and folk dancing, all fueled by medovukha (a honey-based brew similar to mead). Since security-conscious Kremlin types weren’t keen on burning a scarecrow (the carnival’s traditional closer) in a busy public square, the organizers devised a modern version using video projections and a virtual effigy.

TRINIDAD & TOBAGO

At the Trinidad Carnival in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, coconut water will keep you hydrated. And coconut water spiked with whiskey will loosen up your inhibitions—helpful since “playing mas” (masquerading) in this wild romp is not just a spectator sport. A lineup of calypso, soca, and steel pan drum performances and parties commences just after Christmas. Carnival proper is an intense two-day affair, kicking off with J’Ouvert, a predawn street party of revelers slathered in paint, chocolate, mud, or oil. Costumed bands in sequined bikinis and colorful feather headdresses flood the streets, warming up for Tuesday’s massive parade and competition for Masquerade Band of the Year. Through it all, the island’s vibrant street-food scene keeps the mad swirl of colors and music pumping—favorites include roti, corn soup, doubles (turmeric-spiced fried bread stuffed with curried chickpeas), “shark and bake” fish sandwiches, and pholourie (fried split-pea flour balls with chutney).

UNITED STATES

It’s estimated that 750,000 King cakes, iced rings of cinnamon-spiced pastry glazed with purple, green, and gold sugar, are consumed annually in New Orleans during the Mardi Gras season—and that’s just dessert. Eating well in the Big Easy is a year-round event, but once the festivities kick off on Twelfth Night (January 6) and more than one million revelers start descending on the city, the bacchanalia builds to a feeding frenzy of beignets, po’boys, red beans, jambalaya, gumbo, fried chicken, and, much, much more. In 2012, more than 100 krewes (carnival clubs) will participate in events around the New Orleans metropolitan area; many will strut their stuff in the 47 parades scheduled over the 12 days leading up to Fat Tuesday. Some “throws” favored by the hungriest spectators are graham cracker and marshmallow Moon Pies and Hubig’s Pies, a local fruit- or cream-filled confection. Meanwhile, the city’s 3,000 watering holes serve up Hurricanes, Sazeracs, and Hand Grenades (a very boozy, very touristy punch) as fast as the revelers can down them.

ENGLAND

In England and many other European countries, Fat Tuesday is known as Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday. For many, it is the one day of the year they indulge in pancakes! Because pancakes contain fat, butter, and eggs, all of which is forbidden during lent, people feast on them. Pancakes are also traditionally consumed during Mardi Gras in many parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.

SWEDEN

In Sweden, the celebration is called Fettisdagen. Originally, this day was the only day you could eat semlor, a rich puffy pastry filled with whipped cream. Now, semlor is sold throughout the country, but most people heavily indulge in this rich pastry on Fettisdagen. If you happen to come across one of these desserts, be warned: 500+ calories per dessert!

POLAND

Traditionally in Poland, people would indulge on paczki (pronounced poonch-key), a 500 calorie, deep-fried, rich battered donut filled with jam and other sweet fillings, on the Thursday before the Lenten period. Largely due to the heavy Polish communities in parts of the US,  many people often indulge on this sweet delight on Fat Tuesday instead of on the Polish tradition of Tłusty Czwartek, — also known Fat Thursday–the Thursday before Lent. Now, Fat Tuesday is known to many Polish communities in the U.S. as Paczki Day!

ICELAND

In Iceland, Fat Tuesday is known as Sprengidagur, or Bursting Day. While other Nordic countries are celebrating by eating rich desserts, people in Iceland feast on salted meats and pea soup. Since it is the last day before fasting for Lent people use this day to eat rich meals, and often eat until they feel like they could burst–hence “Bursting Day.” Be careful if you’re consuming too much salted meat, the sodium content is through the roof!