Beads, Bourbon and Jambalaya: Mardi Gras in New Orleans

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Mardi Gras in New Orleans

When it came to booking a holiday to stave off the winter blues, it became clear that what I was really after was contrast. Instead of grey skies and bitter wind — sunshine and warm breezes; to fill the dull post-Christmas winter with colour, light and music. All we in Britain have to look forward to is Pancake Day — and from that stray thought emerged an idea. Our Northern Shrove Tuesday involves nothing more than pancake batter, but why not head for one of those places where their traditions involve something more exciting? So my first Mardi Gras loomed, and if something is worth doing it’s worth doing properly, so New Orleans it was.

Mardi Gras is the time to visit this city; the highlight of the year, its famous parades and street musicians turn the Big Easy into a month-long party. But I also had another motive for visiting New Orleans: the food! This city is famous throughout the US for its unique Cajun and Creole cooking, retaining a distinct culinary identity in the increasingly homogenised American palate. So I packed my feathers, a hearty appetite, and a good friend, and set off.

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When in NOLA you have to give Creole-style crawfish a try! © Alexandra Leyland-Collins

My first ever long-haul flight went surprisingly smoothly, even if I did get stuck behind a lot of Chinese students at Detroit Metropolitan and panic about missing the connecting flight. Few noteworthy details about the flights themselves, apart from the surprisingly thrilling statement from the burly Delta flight attendant that ‘we’re just coming over Tennessee.’ The approach to Louis Armstrong International Airport gave us a good look at the famous bayou surrounding New Orleans — tiny creeks and rivulets, pools and stands of tall plants, which glittered in the golden evening light. The airport is half an hour’s drive from the city, so we had booked a shuttle — essentially a minibus and it was there when we got outside; it was also pre-paid, meaning no faffing around for money.

The hotel was on Baronne Street, in the Central Business District. This is perhaps the least colourful neighbourhood in New Orleans — at first glance, it consisted largely of skyscrapers and not much else. But it was quiet, safe and ideally located in the centre of the city, close to both the parade routes and the French Quarter. We were too tired to do much on the first evening, so we followed my Lonely Planet guide down Baronne (nobody says ‘street’ here) to Domenica, a fairly hip Italian joint serving things like roasted cauliflower with whipped feta. My pizza was topped with smoked pork, chillies and red onion — rich and delicious, with a thin crust. That plus my companion’s rabbit tagliatelle came to $40, including the tip. We were off to a good start on the food front.

The next day we had planned to head for a diner we knew of for brunch, but modern technology led us astray and it didn’t seem to be anywhere Apple said it might be. But then, like a mirage, we saw P&G’s materialise. Whirring ceiling fans, formica-topped tables, a white board with the specials, lots of steaming tureens on the counter — no indication of what was what, you were expected to know. Orders being yelled through a doorway filled with steam: ‘I got one fish and grits, one crawfish — you want mac n’ cheese with that? — and one crab gumbo!’ The customers looked so at home they might have been there for years. It was the NOLA equivalent of a greasy spoon; definitely not for tourists, even if it did have pet ‘turtles’ (tortoises) in a little garden out the back, half-buried in mud against the warm winter sun!

Canal Street- c/r Nicola Walters

Canal Street (c) Nicola Walters

We wandered out of the Central Business District — this city is surprisingly walkable — onto Canal Street. Canal is a main thoroughfare and a key point along many parade routes, and we used it to navigate all over the city. Seeing the palm trees and giant billboards first in blazing sunshine presented a suitably striking contrast with the leaden grey skies and streaming rain at home! Crossing a street here means taking your life in your hands; some junctions have ‘walk’ lights, but not all, and the roads are so wide we found ourselves having to guess how many lanes a single traffic light was controlling! And as for the big four-way junctions where anybody sane would have built a roundabout… We eventually got across Canal safely and into the French Quarter.

The French Quarter is the oldest and most famous part of the city, marking the original settlement by French, and later Spanish, colonists on the highest ground by the Mississippi. It’s chiefly notable for its lovely Spanish Colonial-style architecture and the fairytale St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square; most tourists spend their entire visit in the city, without leaving the Quarter. We wandered around, occasionally stopping off for raspberry lemonade, or to investigate a candy shop selling praline (like fudge with nuts), a NOLA speciality. We also had our first glimpse of the Weed Van — essentially a supplier of cannabis lollipops, as far as we could tell — it popped up all over the city, including within spitting distance of a NOPD squad car!

Jackson Square and its fairytale castle © Alexandra Leyland-Collins

Jackson Square and its fairytale cathedral © Alexandra Leyland-Collins

Most of the shops in the Quarter sell tourist tat, of varying quality — masks, T-shirts, voodoo dolls — but there is also a sprinkling of vintage clothes emporia, which are more worth a look-in. They sell a lot of fifties-style dresses, brooches, elaborate hats, sparkly Mary-Jane shoes, and are usually staffed by lovely ladies with fancy hairstyles and red lipstick. One of these ladies, in a shop called Dollz And Damez, went through the parade schedule with us and gave us tips about the best ones to see. She recommended Chewbacchus, a night parade through the Quarter by people in Star Wars costumes, and Barkus — as the name might suggest, the dog parade.

But both of those were still to come as we wandered out of the dim shop into the bright February sunlight, and followed the music. Where to, we didn’t know. But that was the fun of it.

Featured image © Alexandra Leyland-Collins

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An Overdose of Bourbon

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Mardi Gras in New Orleans

My Mardi Gras adventure in New Orleans was developing along the most stereotypical lines possible. In spite of my best intentions, the sounds of music and chaos drew us deeper and deeper into the French Quarter and eventually — inevitably — onto the notorious Bourbon Street.

This street is pretty infamous; it’s lined with bars and strip clubs (although not many actual clubs), and is the centre of the massive party at Mardi Gras. Day or night, the atmosphere of barely-controlled chaos is the same. In NOLA you are allowed to take drinks out of bars in plastic cups, unlike most of the States where drinks must be consumed on the premises. This leads to many, many happy people wandering along with cups of beer and the famous ‘Hurricane’ cocktail, as well as fluorescent yellow receptacles in the shape of a grenade, with an eight-inch neck – I never did find out what the ‘grenade’ contained! A lot of students come to NOLA for Mardi Gras, so there are a lot of frat-boy types with T-shirts saying “MARDI F***ING GRAS” and lipstick smeared over their mouths, and girls in green and purple tutus and feather wigs. The roads are terrible in NOLA thanks to the high water table, and on Bourbon the potholes quickly fill up with pools of nameless liquid (a famous song goes “ain’t no place to pee on Mardi Gras Day!”) You have to watch where you’re putting your feet, and as for wearing heels – forget it. The floor is also littered with strings of beads, known as ‘throws’. These are an integral part of Mardi Gras; during the parades they are thrown to the crowd, and the idea is to get as many as possible, and wear them all around your neck at once! In the Quarter they are also thrown from balconies, and on Bourbon they encourage the ladies to…flaunt their assets, shall we say, in return for them. The biggest beads are about three inches across, and there is a lot of competition to get them…I’ll leave you to draw inferences!

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You will stumble upon beads throughout the year in NOLA © Ali Leyland-Collins

Bourbon is supposedly pretty dangerous, especially for women — my Lonely Planet was unequivocal about staying clear after dark — and rife with pickpockets. But we never once felt threatened or experienced any harassment on Bourbon, and as long as you keep your wits about you you’re no more likely to have anything stolen than in any other densely crowded area. There is also a heavy police presence in the Quarter during Mardi Gras — mounted police, police on motorbikes and quadbikes, patrols on foot and squad cars drawn up at many of the junctions to control the motor traffic.

The rowdy atmosphere is almost exclusively confined to Bourbon — you pass a certain point and the noise and bars fade away completely, and you’re into the quietly attractive residential streets, with hotels and restaurants, and the lovely old houses, all decorated in the Mardi Gras colours of purple, green and gold. We saw our first parade on the corner of Royal and St Ann. The groups that stage the different parades are called ‘Krewes’, and the one we saw first was Krewe of Cork, one of the smaller krewes. Parades through the Quarter are all on foot, as there isn’t room for the big floats, and as the name suggests, Krewe of Cork’s parade was wine-themed. Everyone was in a wine-related costume, from whole outfits made from corks, to a man dressed as a giant bunch of balloon grapes! And everyone had a glass of wine, obviously. They were throwing the strings of shiny plastic beads over heads into the crowd, although thanks to the aforementioned wine their throwing was more exuberant than effective!

Krewe of Corke © Nicola Walters

Krewe of Corke © Nicola Walters

While watching the parade, we got talking to Sela, a senior from the University of Texas. She took us to meet her friends, and we wandered around the Quarter with them, past the cathedral on Jackson Square and up to the riverfront. They bought King Cake, a Mardi Gras staple – it’s essentially a giant cinnamon bun, with green, gold and purple icing, and a plastic baby hidden inside for good luck. We shared it with them on a bench overlooking the Mississippi at sunset.

We said goodbye to our Texan friends and wandered slowly back through the Quarter, stopping off in another vintage shop for a spot of retail therapy. We spent the evening watching the big parades on Canal Street — they close the road to traffic, put up barriers to keep the crowds back, and the big ‘superkrewes’ come through. Our first was Krewe of Cleopatra: high- and middle-school marching bands, dancers and cheerleaders alternate with big, themed floats lined with people in costumes, pulled by tractors. The bands all blur after a while — they are all fairly similar, except the colours of their outfits. The drummers always seemed to wait until they were next to us before striking up! If the dancers don’t seem as enthusiastic as you might have thought, remember they have already been marching for nearly two hours. When a big float comes by everyone concentrates on catching the ‘throws’ – usually strings of beads, some quite colourful and complex, others just simple, one-strand purple, gold or green. Our haul on this first day was 55, plus plastic beakers and little American footballs. We got back to the hotel late, and the sandwich from the 24hr food service was my first introduction to ‘American-style’ cheese. It wasn’t an experience I was anxious to repeat.

Revolting orange slime notwithstanding, if this was the first day we were in for one hell of a ride.

Krewe of Corke Grapeman © Nicola Walters

Krewe of Corke Grapeman © Nicola Walters

 

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Food, Fun and Floats: Day 3 in NOLA

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Mardi Gras in New Orleans

On our third day in New Orleans we woke up late again, so went for brunch at IHOP, which I gathered is a sort of American equivalent of a Little Chef. Iced coffee, two eggs, two sausages, a hash brown and two pancakes with blueberry, strawberry, butter pecan or “old-fashioned” syrup later, I began to wish I hadn’t eaten so much.

Rather like a Little Chef (Wikimedia commons)

Rather like a Little Chef (Wikimedia commons)

I got over it quickly enough once the parades started. I think Krewe of Excalibur came first; all their floats were named after American states, with a slogan with gaps in it. No doubt the Americans knew all of them, but “Alabama, the Y———-R State” gave us pause for thought! The parades follow each other fairly fast; you sometimes have to wait up to an hour in between, but sometimes there is a hold-up, such as a tractor breaking down, and the next one catches up. The pauses and bottlenecks give the poor dancers a chance to rest; many of the children with the big drums sit on them, back to back. All the bands have a pick-up truck following them, full of those too tired to march any further, and there is a protective cordon of teachers down each side with bottles of water and energy bars.

School band © Nicola Walters

School band © Nicola Walters

During one of these hold-ups, a policeman guarding the barrier explained to us that they only get the tractors out of the sheds two days before the parade each year, so there’s always the risk one will break down. Cue a frantic dash to find a spare part, while the people on the floats keep throwing beads to keep everyone interested. Once again, our tally of throws reached ridiculous proportions – we got to 132 that day, and between us we had to wear them all! It really makes your neck ache after a while, but you just keep catching. The people on the floats would quite often throw a big tangled bunch of beads, so about five people would catch, hold, and pull, and end up with a couple of strings each. There would often be a passive-aggressive tug-of-war with your neighbour over an especially fancy string!

Parade along Canal © Nicola Walters

Parade along Canal © Nicola Walters

There was a gap before the next parade, so we walked up Canal to the Aquarium of the Americas, right on the riverfront. Entry was $25, and it had the usual – shark tank, seahorses, penguins – as well as a big Amazon habitat, a Mississippi habitat, penguins and most impressively, sea-otters. They had fake kelp and lots of dog toys; getting a decent photo was a challenge. My friend had as much fun at the stingray-petting pool as the kids did! We got there an hour before closing, so we had to scoot round before wandering back along Canal for Krewe of Pontchartrain. Much catching of beads was done by all, but we couldn’t stay there for long because it was nearly time for one of the parades the girl in the vintage shop had told us about: Chewbacchus.

So we duly trotted off to the French Quarter to look for it. We had a handy app, Parade Tracker, which (as you might imagine) lets you know the route of the parades, when they started, where they were now and where you were in relation to them. So we essentially chased the parade around the Quarter in the dark, but we got there in the end. We found a gap in the crowd lining an ordinary residential street, with the street lamps glowing through the branches of the great, twisted trees.

Chewbacchus in the dark © Nicola Walters

Chewbacchus in the dark © Nicola Walters

Chewbacchus was great, definitely my favourite of all the parades we saw. It was one of the small parades, with people walking or cycling, and the costumes were amazing! Largely Star Wars themed, as the name suggests, but also Alien, Mad Max, Doctor Who, Monty Python, Star Trek, Pac-Man, Smurfs, Wonder Woman, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Harry Potter, “Star Wars on Vacation” (Hawaiian Darth Vader), Wonder Woman, The Lord of the Rings…it was essentially a giant fancy dress party, rather like being at Comic Con. It was amazingly good fun and I was jumping up and down like a lunatic. All that with music and cheering, under the trees, past the lovely old clapboard and Moorish houses. It went on for hours.

Star Wars on Vacation © Nicola Walters

Star Wars on Vacation © Nicola Walters

Then we wandered back to IHOP, which is open 24/7, for a burger – surprisingly good, very juicy, and because I got blue cheese it actually tasted of something, unlike American cheese! By this time it was nearly midnight; when we got back to the hotel my friend’s FitBit told us we had walked over 13km. But we didn’t care. Chewbacchus was Mardi Gras at its brightest and best.

 

 

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