it's 5:30 a.m. on Mardi Gras morning, and the day's first parade is about to roll: astring of little red wagons and wheeled ice chests, towing food and drinks. Uptown resident David Berger and his neighbors (the Pleasant Street Posse) are in that number.
"Parade food and boat food are very similar; you have to transport it, and space is limited," says David. From a lifetime of being around boats (and these days, weekends spent with wife Rebecca, daughter Cameron, 11, and son Chase, 9, on their Sea Ray), David's picked up culinary tips that translate to parading, like grilling meat on sticks and finding compact gadgets to spin out big batch grub.
Even if your house is directly on a parade route, you'll need a strategy for entertaining (and living) at party central. While waiting for her house to be renovated post-Katrina, Maggie Feder stayed in an apartment on St. Charles Avenue, making her the go-to host those years. That meant feeding 50 people while being "hunkered down for four or five days," says Maggie (one year, son Jason and his friends hauled in air mattresses).
Have you been crowned king of this year's Kitchen Krewe? Take your party tips from these parade pros:
Write a menu
Weeks ahead, David and his neighbors write a Mardi Gras menu built around portable or one-bowl meals. He's partial to lobster tails, skewered and garlic-buttered; grilled steaks on a stick; and a whole turkey, deep-fried. One enduring tradition is to celebrate Cameron's birthday, which falls around Mardi Gras, with a no-fuss hotdog "hot tub" (fi ll a tin pan with beer, drop in hotdogs and sausages, seasonings and onions, get it bubbling over a grill and leave all day).
Stick with what you know
Maggie's relied on the standards: crockpot hotdogs and chili, chicken and sausage gumbo, red beans and rice. "Even though I had a huge crowd every day and night for the parades, the food seemed to stretch and everyone went home happy," Maggie says. Put your stamp on the classics (Maggie adds French onion soup to her jambalaya, while David flavors his with saffron rice; he also brines his turkey with cut-up citrus, overnight).
David and his neighbors usually gather on Super Bowl Sunday for a prep party. While the game's on, someone boils and shreds chicken and saves the chicken stock, all of which wind up in Mardi Gras jambalaya. Someone else is chopping, partially cooking onions and bell peppers, vacuum sealing them for the freezer. Think through the execution. One year, David brought two whole prime ribs for sandwiches. Thirty pounds of beef later, he wished he'd had a meat slicer, which would've carved thin, even pieces. Know how each dish will be cooked or reheated, and served. If you have a Cajun microwave and a propane burner, you can cook up cornbread and jambalaya, respectively; a bring-along plastic jug contains and shakes the egg-based vinaigrette that goes over a simple Commander's Salad.
Rely on gadgets
Or go low-tech
Maggie's son, Jason, and his friends drink beer out of five-gallon gas cans, and idea inspired by rapper Lil' Jon.
Anticipate being housebound
Maggie made one big grocery run a week out, and friends brought anything else she needed as they came over - avoiding major thoroughfares (take parallel streets instead), and parking on the lake side of parade routes.
Prep for house guests
Pick up rugs and cover furniture. And tell them to duck - one year, Maggie's friend sitting in a picture window was showered with broken glass after overzealous krewes fl ung beads and shattered the window above her. (The girl was okay.)
King Cake rules the dessert tray on Mardi Gras day. Consider having yours delivered (Randazzo's ships them overnight). You might also sip on a hot sweetened drink like Irish Coffee, which "rounds out the rough spots from the night before," David says.
If you abdicate as king, these parade route restaurants are open for Mardi Gras:
Avenue Pub: Open around the clock, with a global selection of fresh beer in go-cups. For Mardi Gras, Avenue Pub will add bigpot dishes like jambalaya and gumbo to the menu, so you can take a bowl outside to watch the parades. 1732 St. Charles Avenue, 586.9243
Lu?ke: This brasserie will set up two bars and a food tent outside, offering beers, housemade bratwurst, frankfurters, turducken and po-boys filled with barbecued pulled duck, turkey and chicken. Buy a wristband to access the grandstands out front; the wristband also gives you all-day entry to Lu?ke and the Hilton St. Charles. 333 St. Charles Avenue, 378.2840
The Irish house: This Mardi Gras newcomer will turn its gated parking lot into an Irish village, complete with beer trucks and "facilities." A wristband (available in single or multi-day packages) gets you into the restaurant, and as much food and drink as you can handle between parades. 1432 St. Charles Avenue, 595.6755
LOBSTER CORN DOGS
Courtesy of David Berger
• 6 cups vegetable oil
• 3 cups corn meal
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 3 eggs
• 1/2 cup milk
• 2 8-ounce lobster tails
Preheat 6 cups vegetable oil to 350?F in an outdoor deep fryer. Whisk together corn meal, sugar, eggs and milk; set aside. Remove lobster tails from the shells, and skewer lobster meat through the center form the bottom of the tail to the top. Dip lobster in the batter and deep fry until golden brown and crisp, about 4 minutes. Great with cocktail sauce.
Courtesy of Maggie Feder
• 1.5 lb smoked sausage, cubed
• 2 cups Uncle Ben's original white rice, raw
• 2 sticks butter, cubed
• 2 small cans sliced mushrooms, drained
• 1 bunch green onions, chopped
• 1 8-ounce can beef broth
• 1 8-ounce can French onion soup
• 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
• 1/2 cup water
• 4-6 chicken breasts, cooked and chopped
• Kosher salt and black pepper, freshly ground, to taste
• Tabasco or Worcestershire sauce, to taste
Preheat oven to 350?F. Mix all ingredients together in a large, disposable roasting pan. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour at 350?F. Remove the cover and stir well. If the mixture looks too wet, leave the foil cover off; if it looks moist but most of the liquid is absorbed, put the cover back on. Either way, bake for another 30 minutes. (If you plan to reheat this dish before serving, it's better to have it somewhat moist.) Add seasonings to taste.
Serves 8 to 10