Louisiana Division
New Orleans Public Library

Origins of New Orleans Words and Traditions

Many local words and traditions have quite hazy origins. In the list below we offer single versions for the origins of each individual work or tradition. More often than not there will be other explanations available. The serious researcher should consult additional sources in the Louisiana Division and/or in other local history/folklore collections].

  • The City That Care Forgot
    Read Steve Ingersoll's report on a preliminary investigation of the origin of this and other nicknames for the City of New Orleans.

  • Carnival colors--according to Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras Guide (1988), the colors purple, green and gold were chosen by Rex for its inaugural parade in 1872 because the colors looked good together. In 1892, the Rex parade theme was "Symbolism of Colors" and the organization identified purple with justice, green with faith, and gold with power. Over the years the colors have come to be associated with carnival in general.

  • King Cake--from page 142 of the classic local cookbook, Recipes and Reminiscences of New Orleans (1971):
    "...among the Creole desserts that are with us still is the Gateau des Rois or "King's Cake," which is inseparably connected with the Mardi Gras and with the development of the city's now-famous carnival balls. The whole complex evolved out of the Creole custom of choosing a king and queen on Twelfth Night, January 6, called Le Jour des Rois. This feast day commemorates the visit of the three Wise Men of the East to the Christ Child in Bethlehem. It was much stressed by the Spanish and even today is considered the Spanish Christmas, at which time gifts are presented to family and friends recalling the gifts of the Wise Kings. With the Creoles the day became Le Petit Noel, or Little Christmas, and following the Spanish custom there were always grand balls. A King and a Queen were chosen for the occasion, and a new royal pair every week thereafter until Mardi Gras. Ever since those early days the period between January 6 and Mardi Gras Day has been the accepted carnival season, with the calendar of activities becoming more and more crowded as each year rolls around.

    The method of choosing the first king was by cutting the King's Cake ... made of brioche batter, shaped into an enormous ring and decorated with bon bons, dragees and colored sugars. Generally some good mansion was chosen for the ball. At the stroke of midnight the guests were invited to be seated around the spacious dining room table and each was served a piece of the cake with a glass of champagne. Hidden cleverly within the cake was a bean or a pecan. Excitement would be at a high pitch until the bean was found, embedded within the slice of cake by one of the guests. If the finder were a lady, she chose her king by presenting him with a bunch of violets provided along with the cake. If the finder were a gentleman, he would choose his queen by offering her the flower in his lapel... ."

    A Good King Cake Recipe

  • Sazerac Cocktail--according to Deirdre Stanforth, The New Orleans Restaurant Cookbook (Doubleday, 1967), pp. 86-87, the Sazerac began as a mixture of sugar, cognac, absinthe and bitters (the variety formulated by a local pharmacist named Peychaud). The drink was served at the Sazerac Coffee House, which took its name from the French firm of Sazerac Forge et Fils, which produced the brandy used to make the coffee house's version of the cocktail. Eventually the absinthe was replaced by one of the available substitutes for that now-outlawed liquor and the brandy itself gave way to rye whiskey. The Sazerac name remains despite the fact that brandy is no longer used in preparing the drink. Perhaps the most famous dispenser of the cocktail was the Sazerac Bar, located at 300 Carondelet St., but rights to the name later became the property of the Magnolia Liquor Co. Magnolia still bottles the Sazerac cocktail and has also franchised the use of the name to the Fairmont Hotel where the latest incarnation of the Sazerac Bar operates alongside the hotel's elegant Sazerac Restaurant.

  • The Big Easy--according to an article by Daniel Carey in the August 27, 1987 Times-Picayune, the Big Easy was the name of one or more dance halls or other music establishments in New Orleans during the early 1900s. He implies that when traveling musicians talked about playing "The Big Easy," listeners associated the name of the club with the city and that, over time, the phrase was added to the list of popular nicknames for the city. In Carey's words
    Eventually, the nickname transferred to the city as a whole, referring to the gentle pace of life and somewhat lax morals for which New Orleans is known.
    Later, in the early 1970s, local "gossip columnist" Betty Gillaud brought the term into new popularity through a column in which she used the Big Easy as a metaphor for the laid back quality of life in New Orleans as contrasted with the hectic nature of existence in New York--the Big Apple.

  • Pralines--According to Jennifer Quayle in the Times-Picayune (May 2, 1976):
    "It's said that pralines were named after Cesar du Plessis Praslin (pronounced "pralin") a grand marshal of pre-Napoleonic France. According to legend, it was Praslin's valet who suggestd his master's almonds be cooked with sugar to prevent indigestion.... When Praslin came here with his candy, ..., the natives tried to copy it (since almonds weren't readily available, Louisiana pecans were substituted." Ms. Quayle goes on to suggest that house servants learned to make the candies from their mistresses and soon began to sell pralines on the streets of the Crescent City. For at least the last 50 years pralines have been manufactured by commercial firms, although many families still make their own using old family formulas or recipes from a variety of local cookbooks.

Back to Louisiana Division Fact Finder

Back to Nutrias Home

Updated 4/5/2004