Saratoga Springs and New Orleans have about as much in common as maple and cane syrup, but that doesn't mean Spa City residents don't know a few things about Mardi Gras.
The annual Big Easy, pre-Lenten celebration, which kicks off on Jan. 6 and runs through the day before Ash Wednesday, has been transplanted to upstate New York through the efforts of Chef Jasper Alexander of Hattie's Restaurant.
"It's grown exponentially through the years. We started doing it here at the restaurant. After three years in-house, we were packed to the gills. We outgrew this space," Alexander said.
Hattie's will throw its ninth Mardi Gras masquerade ball on Saturday at Canfield Casino. Proceeds from the much-anticipated winter party have benefited various local organizations in the past. This year, the ball will raise money for Saratoga Hospital's new magnetic resonance imaging equipment and orthopedic specialty center.
"It's a great excuse for a party," Alexander said. "You can get that one, last hoorah in before Lent. It's the last reason for a blow out before the lock down for 40 days."
Alexander plans to bring classic Louisiana flavor to the table. In planning the menu, he tried to think about dishes New Orleanians might serve at home parties before venturing out to the parades.
"This year I'm looking at more traditional dishes," the chef said.
Party-goers will be able to sample some of the Crescent City's most popular fare, including gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, etouffee and mini-poorboys.
Gumbo, a classic French Louisiana stew with ties to bouillabaisse, has become a favorite one-pot meal for generations of families throughout the Bayou State. Starting with the "holy trinity" of celery, bell peppers and onions, the eclectic roux-based dish can contain anything from seafood to chicken and sausage. Every Louisiana "mamere" (a common term for grandmother) has her own secret recipe.
Alexander will put his own spin on jambalaya, a Creole rice-based dish similar to paella, and red beans and rice, a recipe that evolved from Monday washdays in the South. He also plans to change the scale of the often-enormous poorboy sandwich, commonly called a "po-boy," to make it more accessible party food.
"The whole idea is to keep it Hattie's style," Alexander said of the menu.
A raw bar with oysters, crabs and shrimp will enhance the News Orleans vibe.
During the first hour of the party, complimentary Hurricanes, the French Quarter's signature drink of rum and fruit juices, will get the festivities rolling.
Alexander said the party has grown so much that Mardi Gras remains on his mind throughout most of the year.
"We start planning immediately after the old one, and we get into full force after the track closes," he said.
To add to the parade atmosphere, students from the Saratoga Springs High School Student Council have designed and built a float inspired by the Mardi Gras theme.
"The float will be the main centerpiece for the buffet," Alexander said. "Being a part of the fundraiser gives kids a quick lesson in taking care of the community and giving back."
Local revelers are expected to come out to party, but raising money for a good cause is more than just "lagniappe," a Louisiana term for "a little something extra."
"Saratoga is very civic minded. This is a city that really takes care of its own. That's one of the things that makes it so special," Alexander said.
"Laissez les bon temps roulez" - let the good times roll.