February 05, 2008

Efficiency has always run a distant second to fun among Catholics. During the Middle Ages, almost one-fourth of the days on the calendar could plausibly be taken as major feasts, encouraging the masses to stop working and start carousing. An Italian friend chalks up the greater wealth of places such as Sweden, compared to say, Sicily, to the sterner habits acquired along with the “€œProtestant work ethic.”€ Maybe he’s right. But is it really worth it? Where would you rather live? (Swedes have one of the biggest nanny states and highest suicide rates on earth.)

Of course, if you”€™re reading this essay in English, you probably live in one of the countries dominated by the stricter, northern, Protestant worldview. You work five days every week, and throw only a limited number of soirées. I’m here to change all that”€”to dig into the Catholic past and unearth an unending supply of pretexts for parties.

That’s where Carnival comes in. This term means, literally, “€œBye-Bye Meat.”€ The festival, which like nearly everything else we enjoy, has pagan roots, and was rationalized by early Christians to mark the time separating the glory of Christmas from the austerities of Lent. To pagans, the season was a time to drive the evil spirits of winter out of the fields and make room for the crops to grow. (Of course, human sacrifice was another pre-Christian custom….)

To mark this day, I’d like to pass along the following song, penned in Ecclesiastical Latin by St. Hildegard of Bingen, and originally sung polyphonically as part of the Office of Vespers on the Vigil of Ash Wednesday by the contemplative nuns of her convent in Rupertsberg, Germany. It later formed the basis for a popular romantic ballad.

“€œBye Bye Meat”€

Bye bye meat
Bye bye beef and pork
Hello tofu spork
I think I”€™m gonna hurl…
Bye bye goose
Bye bye lamb and veal
Hello veggie meal
That tastes like chamomile.
Farewell Chateaubriand.

North of Rio, most of us associate Carnival with Mardi Gras in the Mudbug State. We have maybe even watched on MTV as the hordes of drag queens and sozzled Midwesterners snaked their way down Bourbon Street. Doesn”€™t look like much fun, does it? The truth is, natives of New Orleans try to clear out of town by the time Fat Tuesday rolls around; you”€™ll find the rich ones skiing at Aspen. Unless they”€™re part of one of the elite Carnival “€œkrewes”€ that stage elaborate costume balls and man the parades, New Orleanians throw their best parties around Epiphany, and hit the highway before the tourists arrive to throw up all over the city. (Still and all, nowadays they’re grateful to have all the tourists.)

The French ways of feasting in Louisiana were filtered through two different groups:

* Snooty French émigrés from Paris who settled New Orleans in the 18th century brought with them elaborate culinary traditions which they adapted to the New World’s edible fauna, such as crawfish, snapping turtle, pompano, and catfish, and new crops such as corn, okra and tomatoes. These French settlers”€”known as Creoles”€”looked down their Gallic noses at the Americans who took over in 1803, and kept to their own area of town, which is still known as the French Quarter. Specialties of the Creoles include Pompano en papillote, Barbecued Shrimp, Bananas Foster, and, of course, the “€œroi de gallette,”€ or King Cake.

* Acadians (or “€œCajuns”€ as they”€™re now known) are the people of mixed, mostly French descent who settled in the rural areas of southwestern and south central Louisiana”€”after the British threw them out of Acadia, Canada, because they were Catholics and therefore untrustworthy. After much suffering and years of wandering, the Acadians found their way to the Mississippi valley and spread out in search of good fishing, big dopey edible turtles, and patches of swamp where someday oil would be discovered. Cajun cuisine relies less on elaborate sauces and more on zesty spices and fresh ingredients”€”such as the last furry thing that ran across the yard.

Celebrations of Mardi Gras in Cajun country are lower-key and much more bizarre than the courtly rituals prevailing in New Orleans. Sure, the cityfolk may be satisfied by a simple parade of half-naked transvestites cheered on by puzzled Baptists from Mississippi. But Cajuns like to party. In the small towns of southwest Louisiana, they do Mardi Gras the old-fashioned way: with hooded men on horseback, riding up to strangers”€™ houses making demands. These riders wear masks and peaked caps, but don”€™t worry”€”they aren”€™t Klansmen. (In fact, the Klan persecuted Cajuns.) But these riders do have an agenda: They want chicken, and they want it now. Also okra, garlic, celery, andouille sausage and every other item that goes into a Cajun gumbo. The idea is to ride from door to door collecting ingredients”€”all the while consuming as much Busch beer as humanly possible, then sharing some with the horse”€”and then to bring them back to a common pot, where the wives and girls stew up an enormous dinner for all to enjoy. This welter of drinking, riding, pilfering and eating is accompanied by raucous traditional songs such as “€œHey Old Widow, Give Me a Chicken,”€ and “€œI”€™m Drunk Enough”€”You”€™ll Do.”€

The official colors of Louisiana Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold. Three colors were chosen for the Three Kings who arrived at Bethlehem on Epiphany, and each has a symbolic meaning: Supposedly, purple stands for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. If you”€™ve ever lived in New Orleans, you”€™ll realize that they really stand for wine, money, and jewelry”€”the city fathers”€™ favorite aphrodisiacs.  

It’s easy enough to order pre-made Mardi Gras supplies from specialty Web sites. You’ll need shiny strings of beads, streamers, balloons and party favors in the three official colors, along with doubloons, feather masks, and maybe even a ready-made King Cake, complete with plastic baby inside, representing the infant Christ. Traditionally, the guest who bites down on the baked-in baby is called upon to throw the next Carnival party. Such events can cost hundreds of dollars, and leave your furniture broken to matchsticks. So watch what you”€™re eating.

If you are the host, it is important to serve unfamiliar food that will present your guests with a test of nerve. Louisiana cuisine offers plenty of opportunities; our cookbooks list real, time-tested recipes for cooking turtles, alligators, nutria, muskrats, larks, partridges, pigeons, orlotans, robins, snipe, woodcock, frogs, hare, rabbits, Guinea fowl, mutton, raccoons, possums and Bambi. Should you live in a snobby suburb where it would be considered socially awkward to shoot, trap, skin, gut and dismember any of these creatures, this needn”€™t stand in your way. Chances are good that you”€™re within driving distance of a rural area that offers one or more of these treats for sale from truck stops by the side of the road.

So go ahead”€”invite your boss, your wife’s parents, your friends, and serve up a hot, steaming helping of Smothered Squirrel, or truly delicious Creole Turtle Soup”€”a rich, savory broth with a slight “€œwild”€ undertaste counterbalanced by fresh lemons and generous helpings of sherry. As they gnaw one of those spindly little legs, or move the chunks of turtle dispiritedly around the bowl, they”€™ll learn to see you in a new light. You”€™re not the same tame, manageable person they thought. You”€™re a wild game hunter, a trapper who cruises the bayous scavenging for meat, an adventurer who should not be lightly screwed with. This can only strengthen your hand when you have to deal with them in future.

From The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living

Smothered Squirrel.
A rustic treat your guests will never forget.

Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons butter
2 yellow onions, sliced
1 cup chicken stock
1 pound white mushrooms, halved
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
2 strips lemon peel
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sour cream
1 bunch scallions, sliced
Fleur de Sel

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut squirrels into serving-sized pieces. Season flour with salt and pepper and dredge meat in it. Heat butter to foam stage in Dutch oven.

Brown squirrel on all sides, add onions, and sauté until browned on all sides.

Add mushrooms and stir to coat with butter. Pour in stock and herbs. Simmer a few minutes. Add cream.  (IMPORTANT: Do not look down while cooking squirrels. They resemble rats in the pot, and you may become dispirited.)

Cover and transfer to oven. Cook about one hour, until meat is tender.

Season with Fleur de Sel and pepper to taste. Stir in sour cream and return to oven 5 minutes. Serve over egg noodles, garnished with green onions.

And yes, they taste like chicken. Whenever I serve chicken, I say “€œHmmm! This tastes just like squirrel.”€ Serves eight.


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