Some of the city's old-guard restaurants hold heralded places in Carnival tradition, and king cakes have been glittering extra brightly lately as chefs and bakers around New Orleans put their own stamp on its form and flavors.
But, when it comes to keeping people going through the long haul of Carnival, the heavy lifting often falls to much more humble fare from unsung suppliers. These are the grocery stores, the delis and the specialty caterers of New Orleans, businesses that work at fever pitch once the parade season reaches its prime time.
All across town, they’re assembling mountains of mini muffulettas, sliced-up, party-style po-boys in endless rings and, perhaps most of all, platters of finger sandwiches, those squishy, white- and wheat-bread triangles filled with a few slices of basic cold cuts.
There’s no purple, green and gold symbolism at play here, no extravagant flourish, no Instagram bait or some chef’s own creative twist on the classic. It’s utilitarian and it’s ubiquitous. But it’s also what keeps the wheels of Carnival turning. Try to imagine Mardi Gras without those little finger sandwiches. Half of the city would be flat on its collective face before the parade dukes and captains saunter by on horseback. But with them, well, at least we stand a chance of making it to the final fire truck. Call it salvation by sandwich.
People are partying, and drinking, and the dimensions of what have become the standby Carnival finger foods fit the moment like a Mardi Gras monarch’s kid gloves. Carnival, after all, is a celebration in motion. You move from the parade party to the parade route. You lug your supplies to your parade watching spot from whatever parking spot you found out past the back of beyond. You’re out in the streets. This is no time for knife-and-fork fare. But the same person who won’t sit down for a whole po-boy, much less a square meal, will readily put away a stack of mini muffulettas. It’s the pacing, and the size. The fact that they’re mini is huge.
These deli trays and platters turn up at parade route picnics, house parties, krewe balls and even on parade floats themselves, promising portable, relatively inexpensive, low-maintenance meals. And it doesn’t hurt a bit that their durable trays can remain stable even as revelers in party mode become less so.
Grocers across town say their Carnival time deli business has been growing. Some now compare the Mardi Gras rush to the Christmas season. Chalk that up to a sign of the times. People feel over-scheduled, even at Carnival, maybe especially at Carnival, and they hit the easy button to outsource more of their party preparations.
It’s not necessarily easy for these delis and groceries and caterers, but they’re pros. When an Uptown krewe orders 3,000 mini muffulettas at a time, they don’t blink an eye. When the day’s work includes fixing 10,000 finger sandwiches, they have that covered too. They know how to get a delivery van past road blocks and double-parked traffic log jams.
Making Carnival work takes many hands. And as someone who’s been saved by these little sandwiches more than a few times, I’m grateful for the hands that make our Mardi Gras meals happen.