Here’s how to enjoy a plant-based Mardi Gras without forgoing any of the fun

Salon's Kelly McClure shares her favorite recipes and go-to vegan hot spots around the city of New Orleans

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published February 19, 2023 4:30PM (EST)

King Cake with crown surrounded by Mardi Gras beads (Getty Images/Lynne Mitchell)
King Cake with crown surrounded by Mardi Gras beads (Getty Images/Lynne Mitchell)

When it comes to celebrating Mardi Gras, extravagance and debauchery are key. That includes partying the night away on New Orleans' historic Bourbon Street, reveling in the local parade floats and, most importantly, indulging in all the rich foods your heart desires. 

Classic Mardi Gras recipes are traditionally enjoyed on Fat Tuesday, when fatty and decadent foods are eaten for the very last time before Lent. There's shrimp étouffée, a Louisiana stew made with shrimp, onion, celery, green pepper, and a simple roux; chicken-andouille gumbo, another Louisiana-staple made with spicy pork sausage, Cajun seasoning and roasted potatoes; and muffuletta, a hearty sandwich that beautifully combines Sicilian and Creole flavors. Of course, no meal is complete without dessert. So, don't forget the New Orleans beignets, which are arguably better than your typical doughnuts; bananas foster and bread pudding!

If you're looking to enjoy a more plant-based Mardi Gras this year, fret not! Many of these OG recipes can easily be "veganified" with a few simple substitutes. Here to help us prepare our vegan Mardi Gras menu is Salon's Nights and Weekends Editor Kelly McClure, who recently switched over to a plant-based diet. McClure shares her favorite recipes and must-try vegan hot spots around NOLA:

Joy Saha: In September of last year, I went to New Orleans for a girls trip and it was such a wonderful experience! My friends and I went to Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras Museum Tour, where we saw a ton of parade floats and ate slices of king cake. I've never had king cake before then, but it was truly one of the best desserts I've ever eaten!

In preparation for this piece, I looked into the specific kinds of foods that are enjoyed during Mardi Gras. And I noticed that a lot of recipes are very meat, dairy and seafood-heavy. I'm curious to know how these specific dishes can be made vegan?

Kelly McClure: Yeah, well, the funny thing is, I'm newly vegan. I started out vegetarian maybe two years ago after I watched a really traumatizing documentary called "Dominion." I don't recommend that unless you also want to be immediately vegetarian. It's horrifying! So, I started out like 'Oh, you know, I want to try being vegetarian.' And then I was like, 'Well, if I'm gonna do it, I might as well just go all the way.' 

When we moved here [New Orleans], none of that was happening. I was still eating meat. And so, at least I got to try everything. All the stuff, you know, as it's intended with the sausage, like you said. And everything is just very meaty, very buttery. So, at least I got to experience it because I would have maybe felt like I missed out a little bit. But saying that, there are ways to replace everything.    

Anything that is rice-based, like a jambalaya or a gumbo, and anything that's sausage or beef-based, you could just replace with tofu. Tofu is really easy and it takes on whatever flavoring you prepare it in and it has a very meaty texture. So that works. There's a dish called boudin — which we, initially, for the longest time thought was called "boo-din." You can make boudin balls [which are made by breading and frying the rice-filled sausage into balls] substituting spiced potato for sausage.

It's surprising that finding restaurants that offer vegetarian dishes with traditional styles and traditional ways of cooking is way easier than I would have imagined. And then for Mardi Gras, it's mostly about drinking. So you'd have to kind of think what are you going to eat when you come home, which is the biggest thing because normally, you would just do a DiGiorno Pizza or order pepperoni pizza from somewhere. So now, we'll go to Whole Foods and we'll get vegetarian pizzas or vegan pizzas. There's a really good one called Blackbird that I've been hooked on. They do a fake pepperoni pizza and a fake margarita pizza. So, we'll just have those ready for when we come home and we can make those quickly. 

So yeah, to not ramble on forever, it's easy to find replacements even here because I would never think New Orleans would even cater to vegetarians at all. But at most restaurants, you can find stuff.

JS: Would you say that on Fat Tuesday, lunch is the main meal compared to dinner, which seems to be a quick and easy meal to enjoy after a late night of drinking and partying? Do people often spend more time preparing an elaborate, hearty lunch? Or even, breakfast?

KM: I would say so. You get up freakishly early on Fat Tuesday because you're going to be home by like two or three in the afternoon. And you'll have biscuits or king cake just to get something in your stomach, head out and drink all day — if you enjoy doing so but you don't have to go out and drink. Then, you're going to be home in the afternoon, shove some chips in your mouth, sleep and then wake up and either order something or eat a pre-cooked meal. And then, you're probably going to be in bed unless you go back out, which I can't imagine because it's a lot of walking and it's so exhausting. But I know a lot of people do go back out. But we're usually in bed by seven, honestly, or eight because we're just done.       

JS: In terms of specific plant-based recipes to enjoy, do you have any favorite vegan Mardi Gras recipes or foods?

KM: I don't cook, but my wife cooks just about everything. We don't really do jambalaya and stuff like that, so nothing really traditional. But we do enjoy more Southern foods, like biscuits and gravy. My wife makes really good vegan biscuits and gravy that's really filling and hearty. But it's also usually so hot on Mardi Gras day, so pizza is really a go-to. I feel like people will read this and I'm going to get thrown out. But we're normally eating chips or nachos, something like that.  

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JS: During Fat Tuesday there's a lot of rich and fatty foods that are enjoyed. Those foods typically contain heavy cream, milk or butter or margarine. So, what are some vegan alternatives to these?

KM: Egg replacement is really easy to find. Whole Foods definitely has a wide variety. And then there's Smart Balance brand margarine or any type of non-dairy butter. You can throw that in or just use cooking oil because you're just going for the grease factor, which is easy to replace. Fake butter goes a long way and you can usually use that in recipes and make do. 

JS: Are there any specific vegan recipes around NOLA that you really like?

KM: Yeah, there's one. It's not completely vegan. But my favorite restaurant in the city is called Turkey and the Wolf, which is really popular. It's gotten a lot of notoriety, and they have a vegan chicken sandwich that you could give to anybody's father and they would not know it's vegan chicken. It tastes so good — it has the crunch on the outside and the texture of chicken and they put a spicy glaze on it. It's delicious, completely delicious. And then they have other stuff too there, but that's usually what I get. 

We live in an area of New Orleans called Bywater and there's a place nearby called Sneaky Pickle & Bar Brine, which is all vegetarian. Everything on that menu is great. It's amazing because I have what I call a "children's palette"...lots of junk food, you know, fake hotdogs, stuff like that. And just the food technology that's happened over the past years — even here in New Orleans — of replicating junk food is amazing. The illusion of butter has really come a long way. But those two restaurants, I would highly recommend.

JS: In addition to king cake, which is a staple Mardi Gras treat, what are some other desserts and sweets you like to enjoy?   

KM: Daiquiris are really good. It could be considered a dessert because a lot of times they put whole chunks of fruit in them and they're very milk-shaky. You have to be careful because a lot of them do have a milk base. But if you get the ones that are just fruity, those are really good if you want something sweet and you can't really find anything else. 

Snowballs are a thing here, where it's just frozen ice and you can even get them with liquor or just, you know, the normal variety. There's also Popsicle Doorbell, which started out as a random secret doorbell on the side of a wall in the city which you could ring and then someone would come out of their house and sell you these homemade popsicles. They eventually got so popular that they opened up a bigger location. So there's all kinds of stuff like that. 

It's easy to find similar places, especially during Mardi Gras. People know that everyone's out so they bring out their homemade treats and go out and sell them. A lot of people will sell vegan and vegetarian options that way because they know that they're not as easy to find. It's a good way to make money on Mardi Gras.

JS: When I went to NOLA, I visited Café Du Monde and tried their beignets, which were so tasty. Are beignets commonly eaten during Mardi Gras? 

KM: I would say so. They tend to be more of a tourist thing. But they are still very popular and very delicious, better than a doughnut by a mile. I'm sure people do have beignets in the morning before they set out for Mardi Gras. Beignets are very mobile, so you could carry a greasy bag of them and have them throughout the day.    

JS: I can see them being the perfect breakfast to enjoy before Mardi Gras. I remember when I ordered a bag of beignets, there were several handfuls of powdered sugar at the bottom. After eating the beignets, you can take home this bag filled with just powdered sugar and add it to your baking pantry.

KM: People will play pranks with that. Because like you said, you don't really suspect how far that sugar travels. So, you'll see people purchase a bag and then turn to the person next to them and blow. And that sugar, it's like a little prank that people do because they're like sugar bombs, very messy. 

JS: Considering that you're a NOLA resident, I'd love to hear your take on how people can come down to the city to celebrate Mardi Gras and not be jerks to the folks who actually live there.  

KM: One, New Orleans is very anti Airbnb because it has a really toxic culture here of people moving from different states and buying up properties. So, there'll be residential areas where no residents live there, which is not good and it kind of ruins the atmosphere and the friendly "neighborhoodliness" that would normally be here. So when coming to New Orleans, especially for Mardi Gras, stay in a hotel because this time of year brings in a nice influx to bars and restaurants. People rely on that income and most of our city dollars go towards Mardi Gras and making it a clean and safe place for people. 

It's also important to be mindful that this is a very diverse city. Sometimes people come here from Texas or they come here from Nebraska and they bring Texas and Nebraska states of mind and that's not going to fly here. It's good to kind of take a backseat and see New Orleans culture as being New Orleans culture. Be respectful to the people who have lived here for generations and know that you're experiencing something special. We were given that advice when we moved here from New York, which we didn't even want to tell people because transplants really get put through it sometimes. 

And then there's Bourbon Street. When people think of New Orleans, that's the first place that comes to mind, but that's actually the worst part of the whole city. Bourbon Street is like Times Square. You wouldn't go to New York and go to Times Square and be like, 'This is great, what a cultured experience!' You're more likely to get your pockets picked on Bourbon Street and wake up in a really bad way. The French Quarter itself is really beautiful — coming and seeing the historic buildings, all the architecture and the little hole-in-the-wall Mom and Pop places that make New Orleans so special. 

It's fun to celebrate Mardi Gras. But also, make time to see the stuff that people put their hearts into. I think that's more meaningful.

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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Cajun Creole Food Interview King Cake Mardi Gras Plant-based Vegan