Beads, Berries And Besh: Why This February Is The Time To Hit New Orleans

Commander's Palace has been a New Orleans institution since 1880.[/caption]

For fans of Hurricanes and po' boys, any month is a good month to head down to New Orleans. But there's just something about February that makes the Crescent City shine. The temperature starts climbing back toward the 70s (but without that awful humidity), Gulf seafood is in full effect and there's a tiny little festival called Mardi Gras that's supposed to be a good time — assuming you're into things like "fun" and "delicious food."

The centerpiece of February in New Orleans is obviously Mardi Gras, which takes place this year on February 17 (fun fact: it's also Michael Jordan's birthday). While drinking from the moment you wake up and collecting beads from the passing floats is all well and good, the real reason Mardi Gras is so great is the way it brings the whole city together. And what do people do when they're together? They eat. At least they do in New Orleans. That's why it should be considered a citywide honor to spend the day with chef John Besh, one of the city's patron saints of cooking. He does the whole thing right.

To start out the day, he gets ready for game time His pals bring over their venison from hunting season and they make huge pots of grits and grillades (braised, fried medallions of meat) to keep them all warm while the floats start lining up. During the parade, things get even better with the chef by your side: "I love doing a big pot of jambalaya and bringing it to the parade route," says Besh. "I also bring a big jug of Bloody Marys and some fried chicken for my boys." How exactly does one apply to be one of Besh's boys? Whatever it is, it's worth it.

Another staple of Mardi Gras season, King Cake, can be found all over town right up until Mardi Gras itself. The real joy of King Cake — besides 700 pounds of sugar — is finding the tiny plastic baby hiding inside. It's like catching the bouquet at a wedding without the pressure of having to decide if you really love that guy you've been dating for eight years. Besh's favorite King Cake is from chef Lisa White at Domenica. Fresh bananas, mascarpone cheese, salted caramel, toasted pecans and caramello combine underneath a praline topping with gold leaf to make it extra fancy. As Besh says, "it truly is a decadent treat fit for a king."

February isn't just about Mardi Gras, though. It's also the best month in New Orleans for seafood. Lenten season kicks off right after Fat Tuesday on February 18, so many people of New Orleans put meat to the side and focus on the bounty of the Gulf. Restaurants start offering regular Friday fish fries, oysters are plentiful and crawfish season officially gets going. If you didn't get enough time with your friends and family during Carnival, you'll definitely see them plenty for crawfish boils until the last crawdad disappears.

To pair with all that seafood, February is also the transitional month between winter and spring produce in Louisiana. Citrus fruits, like mandarins and satsumas, are on their way out while asparagus, artichokes and the earliest strawberries are just starting to appear at farmers' markets all over the city. You can try the great produce at classic New Orleans restaurants like Antoine's (celebrating its 175th year in 2015), Commander's Palace, Galatoire's, Emeril's (turning 25), Donald Link's Cochon and Besh's own August, or hit brand-new spots like Brown Butter Kitchen and Bar for Southern/Cajun staples or Justin Devillier's forthcoming Balise, the sequel to his much-loved La Petite Grocery.

While New Orleans may be known for its Creole and Cajun food, it also has a lengthy history of fine cocktails. As the birthplace of a bunch of iconic drinks, the city plays host to Tales of the Cocktail, that annual weeklong booze convention held every summer. This February, though, cocktail culture isn't waiting for summer. Earlier this month the Museum of the American Cocktail reopened inside its new digs at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. There you can learn about the history of the Sazerac, the Vieux Carré and the Ramos Gin Fizz, then go out to Bourbon Street like the tourist that you are and beg for beads while sipping a Hand Grenade from a giant plastic yard glass.

February in New Orleans, man. Let the good times into a gutter because you're so damn full.

This post is brought to you by our friends at MasterCard Priceless Cities

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