Fried Chicken, Ladders and Beads: Mardi Gras in New Orleans

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I’ve had several close friends throughout my life that were transplants from New Orleans. I think they were attracted to me because I was from Louisiana, and I understood things from living down here that other people don’t “get”. I realize after living here for 7 months that there was a lot I didn’t know about the culture here in the land named after King Louis XIV of France. I lived in the country, and, back then, we didn’t travel a lot. We stayed put and enjoyed the culture of my hometown and places close by. New Orleans was the city, and, since we didn’t know the city, and our family didn’t know lots of people that lived in the city, we never went there. If we did, we visited the French Quarter to partake of Beignets, Hurricanes and architecture. That was all I knew personally of New Orleans, and, frankly, I never really “got” what was so special about LIVING in New Orleans. The city has issues. Why, I would think, would people want to go back when there are so many places with less issues?

After Katrina hit, there was a huge effort to make sure Mardi Gras happened in New Orleans. I lived in the Chicago area, and there was a lot of judgment about the obsession with a big party when so many people were hurting. I questioned it myself. I found out this weekend that I don’t know anything about New Orleans, and I let myself be taught by the masters…. the residents of the city. I decided on a whim to go to NOLA for Mardi Gras. I’m on a tight budget, so I just asked if I could crash some parties, and I was graciously allowed. In hindsight, it is the ONLY way to do Mardi Gras. The world sees one version of Mardi Gras. But, I learned this weekend that there are as many faces to Mardi Gras as there are neighborhoods in the city. I took a whirlwind 48-hour tour.

When I was planning the trip, I found the New Orleans Mardi Gras website. I wanted to make sure I really wanted to waste a good weekend and a vacation day going down there. I don’t drink, and, if it was a festival for a bunch of drunks, I wasn’t interested. The website emphatically said that the Mardi Gras celebration in the Quarter is NOT the Mardi Gras everywhere, and they were right. What I discovered as a party-crasher in NOLA is that Mardi Gras is a family event if you are inclined that way. I could write a book about my adventure, but, this is just a blog, so I’ll keep it short. I arrived with my friend Missy at Delgado Community College where the Krewe Endymion launches their parade. A tailgate party extraordinaire was staged there, and we arrived 5 hours before the parade started. I thought it was for avoiding traffic or getting a good spot, but we arrived early for the party. Then, I walked the parade route through Mid-City and into the French Quarter. I had a Mardi Gras New Orleans-style sampler.

My friends Michael and Darren walked with me to kick off my sampler, and I saw the Mid-City house they lived in for approximately 6 weeks. We walked the back-roads. Garages were full of people. Tables full of food and drink lined the neighborhood streets, and families dressed in colorful costumes and clothes were everywhere. Homes were backdrops to a life lived outside. Darren, who is from New Orleans, explained that after work people gather on front porches, eat and drink and have parties. This is a daily thing for this place, but Mardi Gras is the holiday season that pushes it over the top. When we took the first turn into their old neighborhood, I realized there is much more to this city than I’d ever seen. Mardi Gras in the neighborhoods is a street festival on steroids. I met my brother Terry and his family at Canal and Scott and saw a large part of Endymion with them. But, eventually, I knew I had to move on to get to the Quarter before my energy ran out. So, I waved good-bye and headed off into the unknown – a little more excited than scared, but, honestly, there was an element of both.

I walked through neighborhood after neighborhood – some white, some black, some mixed race. I was alone, and I felt welcome and safe everywhere I went. Each neighborhood had their own party flavor. The white folks had tables piled with roast beef sandwiches and King Cakes. The black folks had their BBQ pits going with R&B blaring. But, everywhere… everybody …. was dancing for beads. If I was a chicken, I’d be really afraid during Mardi Gras. The one thing that ties them all together – with the exception of the parades and the party itself – was the fried chicken. Everybody I know in New Orleans this Mardi Gras season had fried chicken on the menu. It is THE Mardi Gras food. Fat Tuesday is a scary time for our feathered friends. And, that’s the rest of the story.

When I arrived in the Quarter – or near the Quarter on Canal – the party changed. It was just like I’d imagine Times Square on New Years Eve in New York. The music was loud, and we were jammed together like sardines. I moved inch by inch to get … well … nowhere. I couldn’t cross Canal because there was a parade there. I tried every means imaginable to get across, but I couldn’t. I finally resolved myself to lean up against a store window with my backpack between my feet and wait. I waited for an hour and a half. When the parade ended, the mass moved on to Bourbon Street – my destination – and we continued our inch by inch shuffle with the added exchange of beads from people on the balconies. Bourbon Street was dirty… not like the neighborhood streets I’d walked earlier. The same piles of beads were strewn everywhere, but on Bourbon trash bags were piled up everywhere, and the stench was unbelievable. I was never so happy to pile up in my friend Jean Ann’s bed.

There are a couple of decadent things I did in my Bourbon Street segment, but Jean Ann swears I can’t claim either of them. I slept with 2 -at one point I think there were three – other women in a Bourbon Street hotel bed. But, honestly, it wasn’t that sexy. We were all so tired, we passed out and I didn’t know who I was sleeping with ’til the next morning. Come to think of it, that scenario does sound like Mardi Gras, doesn’t it? I actually slept til 4:30 in the morning, and I got up to go join Jean Ann’s husband on the balcony to watch the Zombies play on Bourbon. When we all finally got up at 9 AM, the street was clean, and there was very little evidence of the all night party that had ensued the night before. It was then that I decided to “show my tits” on the balcony. Bourbon Street is the only place in the world where it’s more comfortable to change shirts on the balcony outside than in the hotel room with your friends’ friends. But, Jean Ann said I can’t claim that I showed my tits if nobody is looking. Dang it…. maybe next time.

I walked down to St. Charles to meet Michael and Darren’s family again on Sunday. It was another day of family-friendly partying. We went to a House party and experienced Mardi Gras that way. It was a lovely house on St. Charles where you entered through a floor-to-ceiling window. We saw three small parades on Sunday and then ended the day with Bacchus. Some of my Watson pals joined us for Bacchus for a bit. About 8 PM, I was informed that my New Orleans pals were paraded out, and it was time to hit the road. After all, they have two more days of this stuff. I respect my New Orleans friends. This Mardi Gras stuff is work, and it goes on for several weeks. That last four-five days are intense. They’d be whining about being “paraded out” but talking about where they were headed in the morning. Celebrating New Orleans is a job … but somebody has to do it.

My favorite things about my Mardi Gras adventure were simple little things. I loved the ladders. People take ladders and decorate them with boxes for the children to sit in to catch beads. They are colorful and in all shapes and sizes. But what I love most is what they represent. To buy a ladder, decorate it, haul it to parade sites for several days in a row – several weeks in a row – and store it year after year is a commitment. I didn’t even want to haul a lawn chair. But, they brought ladders. They decorated ladders as a family. They watched parade after parade, day after day with their kids to catch cheap, shiny beads for a bit of enjoyment. To me, the ladders were a symbol of the hope of Mardi Gras. “Throw me something, Mister” is the mantra. I found myself chanting it over and over again to the masked men and women who graciously threw me toys and beads. And, I wished I had a ladder. Maybe I’ll have one next year. The other thing I loved was roast beef on white bread with mayonnaise. My new friend Missy made them for Endymion. I was hungry, and I’m usually not much into sandwiches, but it was what we had. I took one bite, and I wanted to eat the whole bag. It was delicious and so very simple. At the house party, they had up-scale catered roast beef on French bread. I found myself slathering the bun with mayo to replicate what I had the day before.

When I go back – and I will go back – I now know some things to do to make my Mardi Gras party my own:

Do Mardi Gras with friends and/or family – It is a festival that is best done with a party. I’ll find somebody that packs up a folding table, fills it with fried chicken and King cake and brings a ladder for their kids. We’ll leave early and play tag football in the streets in between parades. I may just have found a new career as a party crasher.

Do something new – I’ve been told by locals that Lundi Gras (today, Monday) is the best day to go. It is a day filled with street festivals and parades that start early on the riverfront. I was also told to go to the French Quarter on Mardi Gras morning for the Drag Queen parade. It sounds outlandish.

Eat more roast beef sandwiches – I didn’t get enough… enough said.

Today, I head out to experience the country-style Mardi Gras in Mamou. New Orleans doesn’t own Mardi Gras although they have a particularly big stamp on it. What I learned this weekend is that Mardi Gras isn’t just any one thing. Mardi Gras is personal. The words mean Fat Tuesday in French, and it comes from the decadent celebration that precedes Lent. So, whatever it is that you like, indulge in it. No longer is Lent celebrated in the austere, colorless fashion that it was in ancient days. But Mardi Gras has kept its celebration. The best word I can use to describe it is colorful. Painted ladders…. painted ladies …..lavish parades with brightly colored beads and costumed riders … house decorations with purple, green and gold... all in glorious, opulent, living color. My friend Darren said this is why people love living in New Orleans. It’s all free for the taking. I spent a total of $27 plus gas for my weekend. Admittedly I walked a lot. It took me 6 hours to walk 4 miles on Saturday. But that was part of the fun. It was my first Mardi Gras experience in over 30 years. This time I was sober… and what a great time it was…. I’m glad I remember every second. Thank you to my hosts … Missy … Darren … Michael … Jean Ann and Tim .. and the host of a House Party on St. Charles who doesn’t even know me. You taught me a lot about Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and I also learned a lot about you, too. 🙂

One thought on “Fried Chicken, Ladders and Beads: Mardi Gras in New Orleans

  1. Pingback: Sunday Night Check-In: ‘tit Rex, Chewbacchus and Sunny Days | Midlife Moments

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