Since posting this several days ago, I ran across a clip from delish.com featuring more Cajun Mardi Gras from Mamou, Louisiana. Once again, enjoy!
Fat Tuesday. The traditional day in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana (and a number of other cities in the deep south including Mobile, Alabama) when the locals and tourists prepare for the next forty days of fasting and sacrifice by eating, drinking and making merry. It’s also goes by the name that many of us are familiar with, Mardi Gras, which translated into English means Fat Tuesday.
There are numerous websites available in cyberspace that you can access to find out the general history of the holiday, but few will explain it from a local’s point of view.
What a lot of folks don’t realize is that Mardi Gras day is really the culmination of many weeks of parades and parties that began on January 6th, Kings Day. From then until Mardi Gras day, glittery, sometimes lighted, street parades are presented to the citizenry, balls (elaborate dances) are held and the ever popular King cake parties are hosted by individuals fortunate enough to have discovered the plastic baby from the previous week’s party.
This blog is intended to give the reader a glimpse of what the season looks like to native New Orleanians and an explanation of some of the customs a visitor might encounter on their visit to the “Big Easy”. So, without further ado, I present to you a “Local’s View of Carnival.”
NEW ORLEANS AT ITS PRETTIEST, NEW ORLEANS AT IT’S UGLIEST. NEW ORLEANS AT ITS BEST, NEW ORLEANS AT ITS WORST.
I say the above with all of the reverence of a new mother fawning over her first offspring. The Crescent City is one of America’s most interesting cities. As a matter of fact that was the way it was billed in media publicity about the city for years. Settled by the French, sold to the Spanish, then given back to the French by the Spanish, its culture is steeped in two historic backgrounds. The architecture, one of the beautiful qualities, the food and colorful people are all a part of the festivities.
But on the other side of the coin, or in the case of Mardi Gras the doubloon, is the seedy side of the season. The public drunkenness, the rampant use of illegal substances in open spaces, the lewdness, are all part of the ugly side. I will say, you have to give the NOPD credit for handling well over 3 million people during the entire season and doing it in an orderly fashion.
The history of Mardi Gras would not be complete without mentioning the parades and the balls. As a rule, the two go hand in hand, but not always. A group of individuals, traditionally men, form a club called a Krewe for which their sole purpose for existing is to celebrate the Mardi Gras season with a parade and a ball. But, like I said, that is not always the case. Some Krewes forgo the ball and opt only to have a parade. In either case, both the ball and the parade are opulent, gaudy, sparkly affairs filled with pageantry fit for a king and queen. Which, by the way, just happen to preside over both should the Krewe choose to present both. It’s a known fact that in the cemeteries of New Orleans, more kings and queens are buried than anywhere else in the world.
At one time balls were by invitation only, however today there are many that are open to the public for the price of admission. The king and queen are presented at court during the ball, then honored on an elaborate float at the head of the ensuing parade. Sometimes the parades precede the balls.
MARDI GRAS INDIANS
Another unique custom found in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, and on St. Joseph’s Day, is the marching of the Mardi Gras Indians. If you followed the series TREME on HBO recently, the Indians were heavily featured. Legend has it that the slaves who were able to escape the plantations in and around the New Orleans area honored the Indians (mostly Choctaw who lived north of the area) by replicating their garb and customs. Their hand made costumes today are some of the most flamboyant exhibited on Fat Tuesday. Definitely a “must see!”
There are things that I could tell you about parades that would make your jaw drop and you would call me a liar to my face. I usually just chuckle and tell people that you can believe me or not. Go see for yourself.
One of the more popular traditions is doubloons, colored aluminum coins commemorating the current year’s parade and its theme. But don’t get in the way of the little old ladies scurrying to retrieve the “precious” booty . . . they’ll stamp on and break your fingers in their attempt!
Or how about the beads? Some are just plain colored plastic, some are elaborately designed and decorated treasures and they are thrown from the maskers on the floats by the hundreds of dozens. Sometimes, if you know someone on a float, you can get an entire bag (about the size of a baby pillow or bigger) tossed your way. What’s funny is that you might live right next door to that person and he could have handed that bag to you in the driveway. But when he, or she, is on that float they become “Hey Mister!” and catching that bag is a lot more exciting than getting it in the driveway. Go figure!
Then there is the tawdry side of parades. You wouldn’t believe what some women will do for a pair of beads. Yep, certain upper human torsos exposed to a masker on a float will result in copious quantities of beads landing right in the “bosom” of Mardi Gras, if you catch my drift. I told you, you have to see it to believe it.
And the trash. You can just imagine the amount of litter left behind after the parades have passed and everyone departs for points beyond. At one time there was a group which followed parades picking up recyclable waste such as plastic and aluminum. Amusingly enough they called themselves Committee Recycling After Parades or just CRAP for short. Of course, they followed the sanitation workers who would clean up the road apples left by the hundreds of horses used by the Krewes and police. One way for the city to judge just how successful Mardi Gras day was and how much fun was had by all is to weigh the amount of garbage collected on Bourbon Street on Wednesday morning just after midnight.
And we cannot forget about the Flambeau Carriers. At one time, before street lights and lighted floats, night time parades illuminated their floats with kerosene torches mounted atop wooden poles which were carried by African Americans who were paid a minimum wage for their service. To add a little excitement to the festivities, the carriers would dance in time to the music of the marching bands. Spectators who were entertained would throw coins to reward them for their entertainment. The tradition is still carried on today by many of the Krewes who parade in the evening.
Basically a coffee cake, whether stuffed with fruit filling, cream cheese or plain, are a must for the locals and visitors alike. They are baked in an oval shape and decorated with the traditional colors of Mardi Gras which are purple, green and gold and glazing similar to that of a common doughnut. The unique characteristic of a king cake is the baby, pecan or bean hidden inside. Tradition has it that the person finding the object is expected to host the next party. King cakes are not diet food by any stretch of the imagination and can be purchased from any bakery, sometimes year round, in the greater New Orleans area. When in the city, you have to try a piece, or maybe two.
Remember what I told you about calling me a liar? Just go down to Bourbon Street in the heart of the Vieux Carre (French for Old Square). That’s if you can get on Bourbon Street. During the height of the crowds on Fat Tuesday, there is no way that you could possibly fall down on the ground. And if you do happen to fall down, just make sure you have good medical coverage.
Body parts, both real and of the costume variety, abound on the street not named for the liquor, but for the Bourbon Kings of France. Just don’t take the kids there if you don’t want them to see “Grey’s Anatomy” (and a few other people’s anatomy) first hand. Women up on the balconies of the hotels show off their . . . er . . . how do I put this gently???? . . . er . . . womanhood, yes, womanhood, at the requests of onlookers on the ground. Yeah, I know I can hear you now, “J. You’re a liar!!!!!” Hah, hah, hah, chuckle, chuckle. Don’t believe me??? Okay I won’t even begin to tell you about the . . . oh, oh here we go again, drag que . . . er. . . fake women! BTW, the men get in on the body parts exposure by responding to “Where’s the beef?”
In the communities to the south and southwest of New Orleans, in the land of the “Cajuns”, Mardi Gras traditions vary from those in the big city. One custom is for masked horseback riders to travel from farmhouse to farmhouse, guns ablazing, demanding from the inhabitants ingredients to make native food dishes. Most of the time the result is a pot of delicious, hot, gumbo to which all the ingredient suppliers were invited to partake. Of course, as with many Cajun customs, it’s all done in the spirit of fun. Laisse Le Bon Ton Rouler, chere’!
CLICK HERE FOR A BRIEF GLIMPSE INTO THE MADNESS featuring the Krewe of ZULU and the Southern University Marching Band
SEE I TOLD YOU YOU WOULDN’T BELIEVE ME!
MARDI GRAS 2012 FEBRUARY 21st
So there you have it, a local’s view of the celebration of Mardi Gras New Orleans style. If you are planning to go this year and stay right in the middle of the hubbub, you’re too late. You should have made your reservations last Mardi Gras day. You might be lucky enough to get a room in St. Louis, but that’s kind of a long way off! But if you do go, have a great time and don’t take any wooden nickels. On second thought, yes, do take wooden nickels, sometimes they’re thrown from the floats as souvenirs.
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