On the Menu: A Mardi Gras Meal for Fat Tuesday in Aspen
This time of year I can’t avoid getting a little wistful with memories of my misspent youth in New Orleans.
Out here, Fat Tuesday is just another Tuesday. But through my eight years in The City That Care Forgot, it was always an early morning on St. Charles for the Zulu and Rex parades — sometimes following the all-night Lundi Gras show from Galactic at Tipitina’s — then a daylong saunter in costume around the Marigny and then Treme trying to spot Mardi Gras Indians.
I lived there from age 18 to 26 — four years Uptown as a student at Tulane and another four post-graduate years in the lower French Quarter, through the last hurrah of the lost pre-Katrina city, the storm and into the early recovery before I came west in 2007.
A lot of locals down there actually leave town for this final weekend before Fat Tuesday. They talk about Mardi Gras the way some bitter Aspenites talk about X Games — the crowds and the vomiting college kids and all. But I always loved the “Do Whatcha Wanna” spirit, the parades, the chaos, the balls, the music, the kids on shoulders yelling “Throw me something, mister!” and the seemingly ancient traditions of Carnival season, evident everywhere beyond Bourbon Street (where the puking college kids have long reigned and which you learn to avoid after a visit or two).
These days on Mardi Gras day, I do my best to get a taste of New Orleans here in the mountains. I’ll pull out whatever old Carnival items I have around — beads and throws and masks and such — and I’ll make a New Orleans dinner and stream WWOZ radio on the computer and tell my wife some stories. My 1-year-old daughter is already fond of throwing beads.
Surprisingly, you can put together a relatively authentic and cheap New Orleans dinner menu in Aspen. City Market and Clark’s both carry Zatarain’s mixes for jambalaya, red beans and rice and the like, along with Andouille sausage. Over at Grateful Deli, you can pick up a bag of Zapp’s kettle chips from New Orleans (my favorites were always the Cajun Dill GatorTators).
And down at Alpine Ace Hardware below Clark’s is the real gem of Aspen’s NOLA offerings. The hardware store, for obscure reasons, carries bottles of root beer from Ted’s Frostop, an uptown New Orleans mainstay. I’ve never seen it sold anywhere else. I never even saw it bottled for sale in New Orleans.
Frostop has been running on Calhoun Street since 1955, at the cross-section of the Tulane-student dominated stretch of Uptown and the Carrolton neighborhood. The throwback diner brews its own root beer, plays oldies on the jukebox and serves paper-wrapped burgers. Signs of the existence of Frostop in Aspen, in particular, transports me back. The burger joint for 50 years had a massive, 14-foot-tall frosty mug perched on a sign above Claiborne Avenue outside the restaurant. During Hurricane Katrina, it got blown off its pedestal and was planted upside-down amid the flooded wreckage.
The folks at Frostop, in a symbol of defiance through the early days of Katrina recovery, left it where it stood as they gutted and rebuilt the place. When the diner reopened in 2006, they opted to leave the toppled mug there. I passed it every day on my way to work. The restaurant’s menu and its kitschy T-shirts also turned the iconic logo upside down. (They finally turned it right-side-up again five years later, in a symbolic gesture signaling that New Orleans was finally accepting its new Post-K normal.)
For Mardi Gras this year, my mom and dad also sent us a refrigerated package of muffuletta sandwiches from Central Grocery — the rarest of treats out here. (The muffuletta is the New Orleanian answer to the Italian sub. Served on round bread, it’s loaded with the usual cold cuts and topped with a coating of olive paste that’s somehow impossible to replicate anywhere beyond the doors of the cluttered century-old Decatur Street market).
And no, I don’t go to the Snowmass Village Mardi Gras festivities on Fat Tuesday. I’ve learned that the worst cure for homesickness for a place is an ersatz re-creation of that place. But I’ve got a nice feast planned for tonight.
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