The Mardi Gras traditions and Cajun/Creole cooking that we associate with New Orleans, is a vibrant presence here in the Florida panhandle. The TV news here originates in Mobile, AL, which claims to be the first city to celebrate Mardi Gras in the US. Four different parades took place there this weekend. We were tempted to go, but after two weeks attending the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, we might just have enough. Instead we went to a gumbo festival here to get ourselves in the mood.
Gumbo is a soupy, stewy delight that has a variety of ingredients depending on the cook. There are two main varieties: Creole gumbo generally contains shellfish, tomatoes, and a thickener. Cajun gumbo is generally based on a dark roux and is spicier, with either shellfish or fowl. Sausage or ham can be added to a gumbo made with either fowl or shellfish. After the base is prepared, vegetables are cooked down, and then meat is added. The dish boils for a minimum of three hours, with shellfish and some spices added near the end. After the pot is removed from heat, filé powder can be added. Gumbo is traditionally served over rice, but sometimes potato salad is served with it.
Sixteen local restaurants competed for our votes to be known as the best. Their booths were decorated with the gold, green and purple colors that exemplify Mardi Gras and many handed out beads in addition to little dixie cups of gumbo. It was surprising how different each offering was. We favored the ones that were heavy on the seafood and light on the spice. We arrived hungry and did our best, but only managed to sample twelve. A zydeco band performed in the band shell and added to the ambience. The beat carried by the player that has a washboard strapped to his chest, set our toes to tapping.
The festival took place in an area that is hard to describe. It was a sort of resort with a golf course and boat harbor and had a hotel and condos for rent. But people also owned very nice homes there that made us think of Hilton Head. The resort was gated, so we were only admitted because of the festival. The festival was held in an area that had restaurants and shops as well as adventure entertainment such as zip lines and tight rope walking. Overall we were left with a posh impression. The locals were probably glad when the festival ended and this lovely spot was peaceful and exclusively theirs once again.