Not only is it Mardi Gras — our current obsession “True Detective” features Courir de Mardi Gras, and lucky stiffs that we are, we’ll be heading down to Avery Island, Louisiana this coming weekend (well, David will be) to participate in a Tabasco Tastemaker event. Well, if anything we’ve done has shown off the mixability of Tabasco, Cajuns and land Mardi Gras as well as the Lagniappe, we’re damned if we know what it is. Here then, for lagniappe, is a a bit more of the Lagniappe.
The last thing the world needs is another Mardi Gras post about Bourbon Street, 44-ounce plastic novelty glasses full of high-octane mystery liquor, and advice on where to go to see young women (and some older ones too) flash what God gave ’em for 35 cents worth of plastic beads. So, let’s do something different here on 12 Bottle Bar’s first Mardi Gras. Instead of New Orleans and Bourbon Street let’s head 175 miles north to a small town called Mamou, situated on a flat plain of farmland you might never have occasion to visit except by happy accident.
The approximately 4,000 Cajuns you’ll find in Mamou might not be what you picture when you hear the word “Cajun,” for the inhabitants of Mamou are land Cajuns. Most folks are more familiar with water Cajuns, who live in the marshes and swamps of Louisiana and cook mainly with seafood. Wander away from the swamps and you’ll find another breed of Cajun, those who cook with chicken and sausage rather than crawfish and crab and who farm and raise cattle rather than ply the Atchafalaya Basin with shrimp boats and Paupiers. It’s these Cajuns – in a half dozen towns, like Mamou and Church Point, scattered throughout south central Louisiana – who practice a kind of Mardi Gras tradition very different from the debauchery and revelry of Bourbon Street.
I am a Cajun, and yet Le Courir de Mardi Gras, a tradition that dates back to 1750, is a phenomenon that I just discovered this past weekend while hanging out with some of my Cajun relatives at a wedding. The image that hooked me was of 400 riders on horseback, all of them – save for Le Capitaine (The Captain) – hidden behind elaborate costumes and masks, and all of them, by rule, male.
This parade marks a 12-mile route through town gathering ingredients for a giant communal Gumbo pot. Meanwhile, across town a dozen young men dressed in purple, green, and gold outfits whose style could only be described as “court-jester chic” chase chickens across a muddy rice field in a flurry of tassled Harlequin hats and flying white feathers. The chickens run like their lives depends on it… which of course they do. Those who are caught will end their day in the gumbo pot.
As mentioned, Le Courir is traditionally a boys-only club – a fact which hasn’t stopped the fairer sex from donning masks and costumes and blending in with the men folk. No one knows exactly when, over the past two-and-a-half centuries, women first started sneaking into the parade to ride amongst the horsemen, but they are Le Courir’s worst-kept secret. I like to think it’s been going on for a long time.
Once the chickens are caught and the okra picked, everything goes into a giant pot and the nighttime festivities begin. Gumbo cooking contests, best costume contests, and eventually, dancing competitions featuring the Cajun Waltz and the Two-Step will begin… a series of local bands play Zydeco to keep the beat. The word “Zydeco is a bastardization of the French phrase “les haricots sont pas sales” which means “the string beans are unsalted”, which is something you might have said to a Cajun 200 years ago to let him know that times were tough (say “Les Haricots” out loud a couple of times really fast and you’ll see how the phrase came to be “Zydeco”).
But of course, in Mamou, as on Bourbon Street, a good Mardi Gras celebration requires a great drink to go with it. My Uncle Tommy, a land Cajun himself, prefers a can of cold C-minus (aka Coors Light), but I think we can do better here at 12 Bottle Bar.
In the Lagniappe, we use our Rittenhouse, but if you’re looking for something more authentically Louisiana, try Sazerac Rye. Blackberries are native to the state so we’ve given you a nice recipe for Blackberry syrup as well. And, of course, no drink honoring Cajun tradition would be complete without a couple dashes of Louisiana’s most famous export, Tabasco Sauce, made right down the street at a facility sitting atop a giant salt dome on Avery Island. Finally, so folks will know you’re specifically honoring land Cajuns with this cocktail, add a wheel of andouille sausage for “lagniappe”.
The result is a nice mix of savory and sweet with a real kick – and if that doesn’t perfectly describe Cajun culture, nothing does.
For the Blackberry Syrup:
Combine equal parts blackberries, water, and sugar in a sauce pan.
Heat on low until sugar is dissolved and berries break down.
Raise heat slightly (keeping syrup below a simmer) and reduce until the syrup gains a little thickness (like pancake syrup).
Strain through a fine sieve and cool.
We’ll let Mr. Mark Twain explain:
We picked up one excellent word — a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word — “lagniappe.” They pronounce it lanny-yap… It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a “baker’s dozen.” It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop — or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know — he finishes the operation by saying — “Give me something for lagniappe.” The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor — I don’t know what he gives the governor; support, likely. When you are invited to drink, and this does occur now and then in New Orleans — and you say, “What, again? — no, I’ve had enough;” the other party says, “But just this one time more — this is for lagniappe.”