Looking for memorable meals during Carnival in New Orleans? Food writer Ian McNulty says the answer may come courtesy of "entrepreneurial home cooking" near the parade routes.
Conventional wisdom holds that Carnival is a lousy time to go looking for the celebrated food culture of New Orleans, that the season of parades and balls and late-night parties is when our town's intense fixation on food takes a breather.
I disagree. In my experience, the focus just shifts a bit, and this new look can be rewarding and memorable in its own right.
True, many restaurants close or significantly alter their operations, though a great deal soldier on right through Fat Tuesday itself. But first and foremost, Carnival happens on the streets, and that’s where to look for its imprint on the way New Orleans eats.
Yes, it’s easy to succumb to funnel cake and corndogs from the blaring and bright carny carts that descend on the city with the season. But there is so much more homegrown food out there these days. The city’s ad hoc fleet of food trucks has greatly increasing the quality and diversity of street food, from Korean chicken tacos (the Taceaux Loceaux truck) to falafels with shredded beets (the Fat Falafel truck) and poutine (the Foodie Call truck), to name just a few players. But these roving kitchens are limited in number, and they can’t be everywhere.
What does seem to be everywhere, or at least everywhere around the Uptown parade route, is something I call entrepreneurial home cooking. This comes from people setting up shop near the route, sometimes in their front yards or behind the fence line of their church or school, to put on the equivalent of a Mardi Gras bake sale of simple, satisfying, bedrock-delicious New Orleans cooking.
In years past, I’ve had red, meaty jambalaya in a paper bowl from a folding table by the sidewalk, and sauce-soaked ribs pulled from a trailer-mounted smoker wedged up beside someone’s porch. I’ve had my pick from a veritable buffet of slow cookers filled with stew, gumbo and dirty rice. And last year my Endymion Saturday unexpectedly began with breakfast burritos sold from a makeshift diner counter a neighbor installed in his garage. The burritos didn’t see particularly New Orleans-y, but the go-cup Bloody Marys supplied to wash them down sure did.
The line-up of these homemade street eats is in constant flux, changing up as financial goals, supplies, parade schedules and individual ambitions adjust. That means it’s impossible to make any recommendations day to day, much less year to year. That little barbecue stand might be blowing and going on Friday night but just plain gone by Saturday. But just keep your eyes peeled, and keep an open mind.
It's helpful to have a game plan for Mardi Gras. But in my experience it's also vital to stay open for spontaneity, and that holds true when we're talking about food during Mardi Gras.
Of course, most of this activity is unlicensed, uninspected and unregulated. Maybe that’s off-putting to some, and maybe it runs counter to the greater scrutiny that goes into so much of what we do or eat or buy these days. But it’s fine with me. It’s Mardi Gras, after all, and if everything we experienced during this time of year had to be regulated and approved, well, it wouldn’t make for a very fat Tuesday, would it?