When planning Carnival celebrations, you won’t find much of an argument about the dishes to include on the festive menus, but you may need a calendar and a calculator to set the date. Carnival season begins each year on January 6 (the 12th night after Christmas) and ends on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday, which always falls 46 days before Easter.
Because of this year’s early March 27th Easter, Fat Tuesday arrives tomorrow. Tomorrow? Yes… In other words, it’s time to put down the calculators before it’s too late to laissez les bon temps rouler ("let the good times roll.")
Mardi Gras menus don’t come without controversy, and among them is the Jambalaya. My grandmother only added to the children’s Mardi Gras table for her annual Mobile, Ala., Mardi Gras parties. Like many older Creole cooks, Granny considered jambalaya strictly everyday fare, a delicious dish, but made with leftover chicken and rice. It was mild enough for her table of grandchildren, Granny reasoned, because although it was well-seasoned, like everything that came out of her kitchen, it wasn’t hot. And there was no hot sauce or red pepper flakes placed on the children’s table to spice things up.
“There’s plenty of time for spicy food when you grow up and host your own Mardi Gras parties for adults with gumbo and oyster loaf and Shrimp Creole,” Granny told us each time she reminded her grandchildren to never forget that Mobile, Ala., was the oldest the Gulf Coast city to celebrate Mardi Gras. The first celebration was in 1703, fifteen years before New Orleans was founded. ”I wasn’t even born yet,” she told us.
Mobile’s long Mardi Gras history includes the 1939 founding of the “Colored Carnival Association,” with Alex Herman and Allene Jenkins reigning as the first Black King and Queen in 1940.
Like New Orleans, Mobile Mardi Gras celebrations continued along racially divided lines. Former Secretary of Labor, Alexis Herman (Alex Herman’s daughter) was the queen of Mobile’s Black Mardi Gras, now known as the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association, in 1974.
Decades later, with Jambalaya reigning as my traditional Fat Tuesday buffet offering, I had begun to blend other cultures into my dish until Freda De Knight, Ebony’s first Food Editor who died in 1963, offered a reminder from her 1948 cookbook, “A Date With A Dish,” that brought me back to the deliciousness of my grandmother’s “leftover concept.”
I’m currently testing many of her recipes while working on a big project about De Knight, and was stumped by the fact that she included only one cup of “boiled” rice in her jambalaya recipe. For years, I had begun my Creole dish with a type of paella approach to sautéing raw chicken and much more rice than De Knight included. Following De Knight’s recipe in my grandmother’s cast iron skillet brought me right back to the children’s table. Yes…this was the delicious dish I grew up eating at the children’s table with my siblings and cousins.
I’ve added more pungent seasoning and a few extra ingredients to De Knight’s original recipe, but after all, my grandmother (born in 1909, the same year as De Knight) said we could “jazz recipes up” when we got older. Let the Good Times Roll.
Mardi Gras Jambalaya
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon parsley flakes
1 teaspoon each: garlic powder, onion powder, dried thyme, dried oregano,
celery seeds, ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive or peanut oil
2 large celery ribs
1 large onion
1 small green pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 can (15 to 22 ounces) stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup water or more
1 1/2 cups meat from cooked chicken thighs, skin removed
1 or two chicken thighs, with bones, skin removed, if desired
1/4 pound to 1/2 pound smoked, hot Creole sausage, cut into 1/4-inch slices, see note
1 to 1 1/2 cup cooked rice
1/2 pound uncooked Gulf shrimp, peeled, deveined, optional
1 to 2 bay leaves
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the paprika, parsley flakes, garlic powder, onion powder, dried thyme, dried oregano, celery seeds, cumin, salt, ground mace and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the celery, onion and green pepper. Cook, stirring, until ingredients begin to soften, for about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic. Cook, stirring, about 1 more minute. Stir in the seasoning mix and tomatoes. (Reserve the tomato can) Stir in the chicken, sausage and cooked rice, using a wooden to gently blend all ingredients. If needed, add 1/2 cup to 1 cup of water to the tomato can, gently shaking to capture any tomatoes on the side. Stir into mixture to achieve desired consistency, thick and hearty, but not too dry. Place one or two bay leaves over mixture. Cover the skillet with 1 layer of heavy-duty foil.
Transfer the skillet to the oven. Bake until flavors come together, about 35 to 40 minutes. Remove bay leaf (or leaves) before serving.
Note: If smoked Creole sausage is not available use any hot smoked sausage including smoked chorizo.
Donna Battle Pierce is a food editor and test kitchen director. Her most recent research included trips to explore public and private archives in South Carolina, South Dakota, Nebraska and Massachusetts for a book she’s writing about Black cooks, restaurants and recipes. She currently writes, teaches cooking classes and conducts seminars about saving family recipes. Follow her on Twitter @BlackAmerCooks.