The first day of spring is just over a month away. Easter is exactly 46 days from Fat Tuesday. And tomorrow, Tuesday, February 16, 2021 is Mardi Gras. According to Larry, ‘Happy Mardi Gras’ is as common as saying ‘Merry Christmas’ in New Orléans.
Friend and Paducah Tilghman High School alumni Larry Brown has celebrated Mardi Gras from his vacation home in New Orléans for the past five years. He and wife Patti bought their condo and live just blocks from Bourbon Street. The two fell in love with the city many years ago and decided New Orleans was where they wanted to spend the winter months.
Larry said there are a few myths about Mardi Gras and it’s time to set the record straight on a couple of them. One is ‘You don’t have to lift up your shirt to have beads thrown at you.’ Tourists do the majority of the bead throwing to the shirtless crowd. “Mardi Gras is mostly a family affair and most of the local krewes really like to throw things to the kids,” said Larry.
The second misconception is that all parades happen at the French Quarter. There are small walking parades in the Quarter but no big floats. Most couldn’t fit. The beads that ‘rain down on you’ come from the big floats that parade around the city.
“Mardi Gras is bigger than one can imagine,” said Larry. “Things begin on January 6 (Epiphany or King’s Day) which is the 12th day after Christmas and escalate to Mardi Gras day, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.”
There are at least 50 krewes in southwest Louisiana that host Mardi Gras balls, ride on floats, or take part in social events throughout the year. A krewe is a group or organization that band together to host Mardi Gras events. Larry said, “They have names like Muses, Bacchus, Iris, Zulu, Choctaw and Rex. Throughout the carnival season, most of the krewes have balls and crown their royalty. Some have a ball after their parade.”
Some of the biggest parades are ‘Uptown’ which means they start in the Garden District and progress over a two-and-a-half to four mile stretch toward the French Quarter. Larry said some of the krewes have three to four thousand riders and floats. The themes are different every year. He’s seen Dr. Seuss, Racetrack, 80’s, and political satire. And the krewes will throw so many different trinkets from beads, frisbees, cups, toys, and t-shirts. There are homemade items too like sunglasses, purses, and high heels. The homemade items are considered collector's items. Larry said, “We have a Nyx purse and a Zulu coconut.”
Beginning eleven days before Mardi Gras, there will be two to five Uptown parades a day with dancing, marching bands, and other marching groups. “Our favorites are the 610 Stompers and the Muff-a-Lottas,” said Larry.
“We’re one block off the Uptown parade route in the Central Business District CBD. Lots of people line the streets and they might be 20 or more feet deep,” said Larry. “The amount of beads thrown is ‘mind-boggling’.
New Orleans canceled this year’s Mardi Gras. Larry said people aren’t happy about it but they understand. The reason for the cancellation is to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Louisiana, like many states, was hit hard by the pandemic mere months ago. COVID-19 numbers are starting to go down which provides hope for the residents of Louisiana.
Since there’s no parade, many residents are decorating their homes like a float, lots of lights and colorful decorations. Maps were published for visitors to go around the city to see these reverse parade home floats. Larry said, “Occasionally, locals will throw beads off their balconies.”
Bourbon, Frenchman, and Decatur Streets closed through February 16 from 7 pm to 3 am. Bourbon Street is closed through Ash Wednesday.
Some of the favorite foods during Mardi Gras include King Cake, jambalaya, gumbo, pralines, and the Hurricane, the festival's drink of choice. All of these foods are classic favorites. Larry said, “King Cake bakeries have people lined out the doors.” His favorite comes from Antoine's on the west bank in Gretna.
For those that want to know, “The king cake is a mixture of French pastry and coffee cake. It’s oval shaped with icing and sugar covering the top," said Larry. "The original colors are gold (representing power), purple (representing justice) and green (representing faith). The shape of the cake represents unity of faiths. All cakes have a hidden baby inside symbolizing luck and prosperity. The person finding the baby becomes king or queen for the evening.”
One might wonder why the Browns chose New Orléans as their vacation home as opposed to the sunny beaches of Florida. He said that his stepdaughter received a scholarship to Tulane University and stayed after graduation. She left the city when hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. His son received a band scholarship to play trumpet at LSU three years after Hurricane Katrina. Larry and Patti visited New Orléans often before and after Katrina to see their children and fell in love with the museums, walking the French Quarter, and attending games for both the NFL and NBA ball clubs.
With all the snow happening throughout the country, seeing beautiful pictures of the colorful and whimsical Mardi Gras parade is a welcomed sight. Though the Browns may not get to see a full blown Mardi Gras event, I'm sure they'll make the best of their circumstance.