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In New Orleans it’s sno-balls, not sno-cones. (Photograph by Robert Giglio)

5 Louisiana Food Quirks

1. It’s sno-balls, not sno-cones, in New Orleans. 

In New Orleans, don’t dare order a sno-cone at a sno-ball stand. Sno-cones are made with crushed ice. Sno-balls are made with the SnoWizard machine (invented in 1936 in New Orleans), which produces shaved ice so smooth it can be paired with various crèmes. Sno-balls are often served with condensed milk and “stuffed;” sno-balls have a real ice cream center.

2. Don’t Inhale … 

New Orleanians and tourists alike enjoy French Quarter beignets, a fried pastry similar to funnel cake. But, locals know to be wary of the treat’s powdered sugar coating. If you exhale when the beignet is close to your mouth, sugar will fly everywhere. If you inhale deeply, some may go up your nose. Just be careful or wear white — so no one will notice if you become doused in confectioner’s sugar. Another beignet for beginners tip: order a café au lait and dip the beignet like biscotti.

3. Gumbo isn’t just one thing.  

Gumbo is a thick soup made with a roux and okra. It’s also a synonym for the word mix, an alternative definition that can be traced back to the dish’s origins. Louisiana’s people represent a gumbo of cultures — African, American Indian, Spanish, and French — and gumbo, the food, is a product of that mixing. Accordingly, the way chefs prepare this signature dish often depends on their heritage. Creole gumbo is prepared with tomatoes (Spanish and French influence), while Cajun (descendants of French Acadians) gumbo is thicker, darker, and spicier. Some recipes use American Indian file powder made from ground sassafras leaves. Gumbo can also be prepared with seafood, chicken, sausage, or alligator. A myriad of combinations hatch from this gumbo of ingredients.

4. Would you like that with red or brown gravy? 

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Ditch the ketchup, dip your fries in gravy. (Photograph by Robert Giglio)

Another example of Louisiana’s immigrant influence: the option of red or brown gravy. Red gravy is actually Italian marinara sauce and brown gravy is derived from French au jus sauce. The two ethnic groups brought these sauces from their old countries, and the rest of New Orleans started making them. Over time, the condiments lost their original names and started being ordered according to color. Order a po’ boy (a submarine sandwich made with French bread), fries, or macaroni, and your bound to get asked if you want red or brown gravy.

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Don’t eat the baby in the King Cake! (Photograph by Robert Giglio)

5. Don’t eat the baby!

King cakes are a Mardi Gras tradition. This braided, bread-like cake is topped with tri-color sugar in the Mardi Gras colors — purple, green and gold. King cakes are only enjoyed during Carnival season, which starts on January 6, King’s Day — named for the day the Magi visited Jesus — and ends the day before the Lenten season begins. A plastic king-cake baby, symbolizing the infant Jesus, is hidden in the cake. The person who gets the piece of cake with the baby traditionally has to buy the next king cake. So, if you’re cheap, avoid the baby and, most importantly, don’t swallow him.

Caroline Gerdes grew up in New Orleans and is one of National Geographic’s Young Explorer grantees. Follow her story on Twitter @CarolineCeleste.