Mardi Gras or Carnival—the very words conjure images of flamboyantly costumed dancers, streets exploding with calypso, soca and samba (or other local rhythms) and wild drinking, feasting and general merrymaking.
This riotous, bacchanal holiday has its roots in pagan springtime rituals. While the Catholic Church tried to suppress these festivities in the Middle Ages, it failed miserably and countries like France, Portugal and Spain borrowed inspiration from these ceremonies and applied them to frenetic celebrations taking place before the fasting and discipline of Lent began. This custom flourished in New World colonies like Louisiana, Brazil and various Caribbean islands.
Over the years, different strokes evolved for different folks, even from the same basic culture: in the “Courir de Mardi Gras” in rural Louisiana’s Cajun countryside, costumed revelers on horseback beg door-to-door and chase after ingredients for a communal gumbo—a live chicken is sometimes tossed in the air, causing revelers to scramble for it as if in a football huddle—and there’s a traditional French song about the courir, or run. On the French Caribbean island of Martinique, “red devils” and mock transvestite weddings abound.
This year’s Mardi Gras celebrations climax on February 24th, which is when Fat Tuesday (the French translation of “Mardi Gras”), the day before Ash Wednesday, falls. While you might not make it to Rio or the Caribbean this year, celebrate What better way to celebrate Carnival than by imbibing the signature beverages of three different cultures? Fee studious by telling yourself you’re doing a cross-cultural comparison.
Rio de Janeiro
The world capital of Carnival is undoubtedly Rio de Janeiro. Spectacularly flashy samba parades, in which about 300 street bands play irresistible rhythms as if their lives depended on it and costumed balls are ticketed events, and the bar for opulent, inventive and often transvestite costumes is set very high.
The national drink of Brazil is a caipirinha, whose main ingredient is cachaça (kah-SHAH-sah), a clear liquor made from sugar cane juice. A basic caipirinha simply adds a lime and sugar. But creative improvisations can be devised by adding pomegranate juice, blackberries, strawberries and basil, or a fruit that strikes your fancy.
Recipe: Strawberry Basil Caipirinha
2 oz Leblon cachaça
4 strawberries cut into quarters
2-3 torn, small basil leaves
1 tbsp. superfine sugar
1 lime, quartered
Muddle above ingredients all at once. Pour into cocktail tumbler filled with ice. Add sugar, then shake over ice and serve. Garnish with half a strawberry ad a basil leaf.
(For an extra kick, add a touch of Tabasco.)
Courtesy of Leblon Cachaça.
Martinique, French West Indies
Truman Capote likened this lush Caribbean island’s Carnival to “an explosion in a fireworks factory.” Red is the official color on Fat Tuesday and there’s a parade of “red devils”, costumed in red hot pants, bras, red mesh stockings and jumpsuits covered with tiny mirrors and bells, often with tails and tridents. In a “pajama parade” before dawn Monday morning, marchers in pajamas, nightgowns and casual clothing march in the darkness in Fort-de-France, the capital, many coming straight from parties, others children with their parents. “Mock weddings” of men dressed as women in high heels, wigs and dresses take place later on Monday.
Carnival is supposed to end on Fat Tuesday. But in Carnival-loving Martinique (www.martinique.org), on Ash Wednesday there’s yet another parade with over 40 marching bands, and black and white are the colors of the day (silver also qualifies). Many women are clad in traditional embroidered white petticoats and blouses with black skirts, faces sometimes smeared with white flour or ashes march. A huge effigy of King Carnival is set on fire at the end of the night, as revelers dance ecstatically.
Three weeks later, a mini-Carnival on Martinique, Mi-Careme, offers a 24-hour session of dancing and feasting before fasting resumes.
Martinique is famous for its rum, made from sugar cane juice, not molasses like most rums. Dubbed rhum agricole, it boasts an AOC designation from France which controls its production, like other location-specific spirits, Champagne and Cognac
Recipe: Planter’s Punch, Martinique-style
Â½ cup white rum (rhum agricole blanc)
1 cup aged rum (rhum vieux)
1 1/2 cup orange juice
1 1/2 cup pineapple juice
1 1/2 cup guava nectar
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
3 tbsp Grenadine syrup
1 tsp Angostura bitters
6 fresh pineapple rings
6 orange slices
6 cinnamon sticks (or ground cinnamon: but not too much so it doesn’t “kill” the other flavors)
6 Maraschino cherries
Combine liquids in large container, then stir. Top with fruit.
Courtesy of Martinique Promotion Bureau
You don’t have to be in a humid climate far south to celebrate Carnival. Quebec City has a frosty annual Winter Carnival (www.carnaval.qc.ca), which was held January 30th through February 15th this year.
There are thrills and spills galore, like snow slides, in which one slides down a sleep slope in a crazily-spinning inner tube-like contraption, dogsled racing, skijoring (skiing pulled by horses) contests, canoe racing on the icy St. Lawrence River, bathing suit snow parties and nighttime dance parties.
The signature libation of the Carnaval de Quebec is caribou: a sweet wine punch flavored with maple syrup and cinnamon, traditionally served during this time, or for fuel after snow sports like snowmobiling or dogsledding. Any inexpensive red wine will suffice, as you mix it with hard liquor.
20 oz. red wine
20 oz. vodka or whiskey
6 tablespoons maple syrup
couple of cinnamon sticks
Pour into a big bottle or bowl. A shot is about 2 oz. per person. Drink until a warm glow settles over you.