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Mardi Gras doughnuts and beads. (Flickr)

As any Michi­gander will tell you, whether or not you choose to observe the Lenten season, Mardi Gras is a date marked on your cal­endar for one main reason: pączki. But this Mardi Gras tra­dition is somewhat unique to Michigan.

Mardi Gras, the French phrase that lit­erally means “Fat Tuesday,” is the name for the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. The day is cel­e­brated in a variety of ways depending on where you’re from, but in general, the theme is a cel­e­bration of culture, and most impor­tantly, food.

Senior Meghan Perks from Louisiana described the kind of fes­tiv­ities that take place at a typical New Orleans Mardi Gras.

“It’s a really cool time,” Perks said. “There are always people lis­tening to Cajun music and dancing, and it’s really fun to just see groups of people gath­ering together, eating jam­balaya or gumbo, and obvi­ously King Cake, and just watching people have a good time together right before Lent starts.”

King Cake, a sweet bread frosted in purple, green, and gold, is a tra­di­tional Mardi Gras treat. The Mardi Gras season, however, is a lot longer than just Fat Tuesday in New Orleans.

“I’ve been going to Mardi Gras since I was a wee babe,” Perks said. “It starts on January 6, tech­ni­cally, which is the Epiphany, when the Wise Men found Jesus, and that’s where we get King Cakes from. From that point on, all the parades begin.”

The fes­tiv­ities con­tinue to increase in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras weekend, when the cel­e­bration is at its peak. Perks noted how the fes­tiv­ities take a pause before beginning again on Monday and Tuesday.

“There are never any parades on Sunday, which is really cool, I think, and gives people time to rest after eating so much food and drinking so much alcohol,” Perks said, laughing.

Though he won’t be hosting a month-long cel­e­bration, Patrick Kander, the exec­utive chef for Bon Appétit Man­agement Company, said the dining hall will be offering a few tra­di­tional Louisiana dishes, including classic gumbo.

“For lunch, we’re going to do a chicken sausage and shrimp jam­balaya, and some stewed okra, zuc­chini, and tomatoes,” Kander said. “At Passport, we’re going to offer a fried shrimp Po’Boy with red beans and rice, and sauteed mustard greens.”

He added that Creole food is one of his favorite styles to cook.

“It’s very deeply rooted in their culture,” Kander said. “I’m actually going to New Orleans again in a few weeks, and it’s very rich in history. It’s just a lot of really, really won­derful food, very much comfort food.”

Bon Appétit will also be rep­re­senting tra­di­tional Michigan culture, with an array of pączki being offered starting at mid-breakfast until they run out.

Perks said she’d never even heard of pączki before coming to Hillsdale College, but freshman Phoebe Fink from Ypsi­lanti, Mich. swears it is not Fat Tuesday until she has had one of these jelly-filled Polish doughnuts.

“Every year on Fat Tuesday, most of Michigan con­sumes basi­cally their own body­weight in pączki. Mostly we just get them at grocery stores,” Fink said, adding that Kroger is always well stocked at least a week in advance of the holiday. “Last year, my family and I drove to the Polish dis­trict of Detroit, a little city called Ham­tramck, and there are a bunch of Polish bak­eries there that fill up with pączki before Fat Tuesday. So we went there and bought about three dozen, and they were delec­table.”

Fink’s family is not the only one obsessed with the Polish treat, however, and Fink said it’s not unusual for all the pączki to be gone by the time Fat Tuesday itself rolls around.

For Perks, it’s all about the King Cake. She said that last year, Bon Appétit offered this tra­di­tional Mardi Gras sweet, too.

“Last year for Mardi Gras, they had King Cake in the dining hall, and they called it King Bread. It made me kind of cry on the inside,” Perks said, joking. “People hardly know any­thing about Louisiana. I guess it’s a crazy place, and just seems very bizarre from the outside. It’s kind of bizarre from the inside.”

But she doesn’t let this stop her from sharing some King Cakes of her own among her friends on the days before Lent. She said she enjoys telling others about Mardi Gras, and though she joked that Michigan culture was missing out, she acknowl­edged that each tra­dition had its merit.

“I always grieve quietly because people don’t know what King Cake is!” Perks said. “That’s the real thing! But also, the pączki are the real thing for people up here, and I’ve never expe­ri­enced them, so maybe they grieve for me as well.”

  • Jedediah Boudreaux

    For Luanne, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.