Carnival is synonymous with (or an excuse for) partying all over the world. In 2017 its final day is February 28, but feasting starts long before that. Call it Mardi Gras, Carnival or Carnevale — what began as a pagan festival to say good-bye to winter and welcome spring and fertility merged with the Christian tradition of Lent that starts on Ash Wednesday, evolving into the bacchanal we know and love today. Whether you're attending a fabulous Carnival in Europe or the Americas, or enjoying a staycation, here are some food and drink customs to observe the season properly.

Louisiana, U.S.

King cake — a sugary, wreath-shaped pastry topped with purple, green and gold sprinkles, often with a cream or fruit filling and a tiny plastic baby inside  is the Mardi Gras food in New Orleans. (Find the baby and you buy the next cake or host the next party.) Two weeks' worth of 60 parades, featuring ornately and outlandishly costumed revelers on floats who toss beads, cups and plush toys to the cheering crowd, happen before Ash Wednesday. On January 6, the start of Carnival season, the torch-lit Joan of Arc parade with medieval-costumed riders on horseback passes through the French Quarter at night. Big Mardi Gras parades are also held in Lake Charles and Lafayette, and some small towns in Cajun country have a horseback version, the Courir de Mardi Gras.



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Frittelle or fritole (powdered-sugar fritters with or without cream filling and sometimes raisins, rum or brandy) are the festival food of the Venice Carnevale. The Floating City's lavish masquerade balls, distinctive masks, dinners and dance parties in palaces, canal parade of decorated boats, and procession of young girls in Renaissance costumes dazzle visitors. Go to the Piazza San Marco to find outdoor masked shows, fireworks and water fountains.


Czech Republic

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In villages in the Czech Republic, Masopust starts with costumed parades in late January and progresses to a roast pork feast with sauerkraut the week before Ash Wednesday, with men in animal or human masks singing door to door for rewards of sausages, black pudding and brandy on its final day. The quaint town of Český Krumlov, a three-hour drive from Prague in South Bohemia, celebrates with masked parades, street plays, magicians and musicians, plus a pork feast at the local brewery. In Prague, Carnival features parades, clowns, acrobats, and fancy balls and concerts in palaces, some where Mozart and Beethoven performed.   


Trinidad & Tobago

The Caribbean’s biggest Carnival stars eye-popping sequined and feathered costumes and dozens of steel-pan bands playing calypso and soca. The favorite Carnival food on Trinidad is corn soup, a stew of split peas, flour dumplings, corn and pimento peppers, sometimes with pumpkin, chickpeas, carrots or coconut milk. But doubles, the fried-bread sandwiches filled with chickpea stew and topped with tamarind or green mango chutney and Scotch bonnet pepper sauce, are so beloved that they’re eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner (during Carnival, probably all three).   



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What’s your pleasure? Rio de Janeiro offers flamboyant and skimpy costumes, parades of samba bands, and formal or costumed balls in beachside hotels, while Salvador in Bahia, the African-influenced state, hosts Brazil’s biggest street Carnival. (We're talking a seven-mile parade route with axe music, a fusion of pop, samba and Caribbean beats.) In Bahia, savor acaraje, deep-fried black-eyed pea patties, served with shrimp and cilantro; in Rio, feast on feijoada, a stew of pork, sausage, ribs and black beans, served with orange slices and rice. Sip batida, a mix of cachaça, sugarcane juice liquor and fruit anywhere. 



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The country’s biggest Carnival is on its flower-filled subtropical island off the African coast. On Madeira, malasadas (deep-fried golden-brown doughnuts coated with sugarcane honey or sugar) and sandwiches of pork or rabbit, marinated in white wine, garlic and salt (carne de vinho e alhos) are traditional Carnival snacks. Carnival starts with the Festa dos Compadres in Santana, a small town with triangle-shaped thatched houses, where giant satirical male and female “dolls” appear, are taken to task for their foibles and finally burned. In Funchal, the capital, a week of festivities features parades with more than 1,000 costumed riders on floats, plus samba bands and shows. 



In Vienna, jam-filled, sugar-sprinkled doughnuts called krapfen (the legendary Hotel Sacher offers an apricot jam filling) and prune fritters filled with marzipan, chocolate and plum brandy or rum, called schlosserbuben, are eaten for Carnival. Vienna has many formal-dress balls in January and February, some at the Hofburg, the former imperial palace. In the Alpine Tirol region, elaborate Carnival processions occur once every few years. In Imst, men parade in carved wooden masks and costumes, some dressed as pig-tailed, broom-wielding witches, one with cow bells attached to his hips, and others pushing back onlookers with a water pistol, powder puff and sack.  



Photo by Christian via Flickr

Fasnacht is the Carnival in Basel, situated in northwest Switzerland. The festival goes back more than 600 years and is the country's most popular, drawing 15,000 masked participants. Unlike other Carnivals, it's held after Ash Wednesday, and it’s in a Protestant-majority city. At 4 a.m., a parade of huge illuminated canvas lanterns adorned with cartoons and verses that make fun of the past year’s events starts, and parade guilds play drums and fifes. Parades of themed floats and horse-drawn carriages ensue later. A hearty peppercorn- and clove-seasoned onion soup (mehlsuppe) and bacon-onion quiches and pretzels, both sprinkled with caraway seeds, are typical Carnival foods.

By Sharon McDonnell

Sharon McDonnell is a San Francisco-based travel and food/beverage writer for many outlets.