'Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is compos'd of passion....'
From 'Lent' by George Herbert (1593-1633)
‘Fat Tuesday’ aka ‘Mardi Gras’ is the day before Lent starts. Given the limits on personal enjoyment that Lent imposed – no sex, limited food, lots of devotional activities, it’s not surprising that Fat Tuesday was enjoyed as the last opportunity to let yourself go before Ash Wednesday when you had to be all penitential.
The word ‘Carnival’ comes from the Latin 'carne vale' – farewell to the flesh, and it means that in every sense of the word. Carnival was the season when all the good things were eaten up before the Lenten fast began, it was a signal to let your hair down and pull your skirts up. In 1817 Byron wrote to a friend from Venice to say he was on an invalid regime, having spent too many late nights during Carnival with 'the sword wearing out the scabbard'. Hmm...
Mardi Gras carnivals emigrated to the United States with the 18th century French settlers in the deep south, and the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans are an essential part of the city’s economy which is as fragile as the levees which protect it.
The people whose Mardi Gras celebrations interest me most however are the Louisiana Acadians – the Cajuns as they are more commonly known. Their story is well known in the southern USA where it is regarded as one of the most shameful episodes of British colonialism.
The ancestors of the Cajuns were French Catholic settlers of 'Acadia' on the Atlantic coast of Canada. They arrived there about 1607 but around 1755 they were turned out by the British in a brutal episode of ethnic cleansing. Some 15,000 people were forcibly expelled from their homes. About a third of them – mostly women and children died during the process. Some Acadians went back to France, but some wandered south and these days there are twenty-seven parishes of their descendants in the swampy southern areas of Louisiana.
Cajun language, music and culture became amply seasoned with Creole and Native American influences and is still highly distinctive, as is their cuisine. Cajun country is very rural and the food is hearty, spicy, and based on rice, beans, pork, chicken and shellfish. I love it.
‘Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic and Can You Make a Roux?’ is a cookbook by Marcelle Bienvenue which reinforces the view that Cajun identity is rooted in family, community, food, and devout Roman Catholicism. The roux of the title, along with a fiery spice mix, are the two main foundations of Cajun cooking.
Enough. Let’s cook.
This traditional Cajun dish is from Emeril Lagasse’s book ‘Louisiana Real and Rustic’. It’s from Evangeline Parish and it’s a Mardi Gras speciality which is made by families getting together before Lent starts. The recipe uses American measurements, but they are really easy, just use a small mug if you haven’t got a set of measuring cups and I’ve tinkered with the ingredients a bit.
Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
1/2 cup vegetable oil and 1/2 cup plain flour
1½ cups chopped onion, 1 cup chopped celery, 1 sliced pepper
1 large piece of chorizo and 1 lb raw chicken meat chopped into one inch chunks
1 tsp salt, ¼ tsp cayenne, 3 bay leaves
6 cups water
2 tsp Cajun spice mix - buy this or make it - see below*
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, ½ cup chopped spring onions or chives
1 tablespoon filé powder (ground sassafras) and a dollop of sour cream – both optional but good.
Cajun spice mix is culinary nirvana as far as I'm concerned. Make up a quantity and keep it in a jar. I cannot tell you how heavenly it is. Rub it on a piece of indifferent farmed salmon, let it stand for an hour, then roast - and wow. This is my version of Emeril's recipe. He adds onion and garlic powder as well: 8 tsp paprika, 3 tsp cayenne, 5 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 4 tsp sea salt, 3 tsp dried oregano, 3 tsp dried thyme. Mix well, store in an airtight jar.
Coat the chicken in the cajun spice mix and set it aside. Make the roux by mixing the oil and flour and stirring-stirring-stirring over a medium heat until it's the colour of a dark milk chocolate - it takes about 20 minutes. Have all the vegetables chopped ready and add them to the roux when it's attained the right colour. Keep stirring, after 3 or 4 minutes add the sausage, spices and the water. Bring to the boil then simmer uncovered on a low hear for about an hour.
Add the chicken to the pot and simmer for another hour, skim off any fat which rises to the top ( I didn't bother). Remove from heat and add the parsley, put in a dollop of cream and sprinkle with chives or chopped spring onions. Serve with white rice from deep bowls.
This is very warming and comforting. You can make the roux in advance and keep it in the fridge until needed.
and here's the fabulous John Hegley -
'Lent, is meant to be spent fasting,
In rememberance of the Lord,
Lasting six weeks without a decent meal,
Six weeks in the desert,
Without any dinner, without any dessert,
And without any tart, but he saved on rent,
and before he went he ate plenty of pancakes.'
John Hegley (b 1953)