A Introduction to Mardi Gras – and a visit to Mardi Gras World, New Orleans

Happy Mardi Gras!!! Ok, so I’m a day early, but it’s Monday morning and thought we could all do with starting the week on a high! Other than flashy parades and copious amounts of drinking, those of us who don’t hail from New Orleans really don’t know a hell of a lot about the big day. Husband and I knew a little more about it from books we’d read and some documentaries we’d seen, but we knew there was still a lot we didn’t understand. So when we made our return to New Orleans late last year, we decided to visit Mardi Gras World to learn a little more. Before we get to that, let’s look at the basics…

WHAT IS ‘MARDI GRAS’?
Those of you familiar with Easter celebrations have probably heard of Ash Wednesday. And if you’re an Aussie kid, you’ve definitely heard of Shrove Tuesday and ate pancakes for breakfast at school to celebrate; Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday,” is the same thing as Shrove Tuesday, falling the day before Ash Wednesday.

GREAT, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE PARADES AND PARTIES THAT GO ON IN NEW ORLEANS?
Ok, let’s break it down as simply as possible for those who don’t have a Catholic background…

– Ash Wednesday = the first day of Lent.

– Lent = the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday during which practicing Catholics often give up something they usually enjoy (like chocolate or their favourite TV show) as a symbolic act of repentance and fasting.

– Palm Sunday = the Sunday before Easter, the first ‘celebration’ day of the season after the 40 days of fasting.

AND THE TUESDAY THAT IS MARDI GRAS?
– Mardi Gras = the last day before the 40 days of fasting and repentance begins. The celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is basically rooted in the idea that if you’re going to be fasting and repenting and behaving for the next 40 days, why not overindulge in good food and booze and party like a maniac the night before?!

OK, SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PARADES NEW ORLEANS HOLDS TO CELEBRATE?
No doubt you’ve seen photos or footage of the apparent carnage that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans; it’s actually a lot more organised and symbolic than it may first appear. To understand that, let me go back a bit and explain the ‘who’ behind the parades first.

Parades are organised by krewes, which are essentially social aid clubs. Membership is incredibly prestigious, can be quite pricey, and members take enormous pride in the events they organise and partake in. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation kindly list the city’s krewes on their website if you’d like to see read a little more about them.

The parades you see, with the big floats and costumed marchers are the culmination of what is usually 12 months work from the members of the city’s krewes (as in, once Mardi Gras is over, they start working on next year’s almost immediately). They commission and finance the floats and costumes, spending endless hours working on them, and the end result is those visually overwhelming parades. And the parades are fabulous, but knowing more about the work that goes into them has given me a much bigger appreciated for it all this year.

It has to be said that this is a very basic explanation of an event that is incredibly intricate and steeped in more tradition than I could possibly hope to cover in one blog post – we haven’t even touched king cakes, Mardi Gras Indians or the beads you see revelers wearing! You can head on over to Mardi Gras New Orleans to learn a little more, but hopefully that all makes a bit more sense, and will help explain what made us decide to visit Mardi Gras World…

Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl
http://www.mardigrasworld.com/

When I talk about the floats used in the parades, they’re not some cute little hand pulled wagons. They’re enormous – as in, the size of buses or coaches. Absolutely huge. So it’s fair to say the krewes couldn’t be making them all themselves – who’d have a workshop that big?! That’s where Mardi Gras World come in; Mr Blaine Kern, who started to learn the craft from his father, Roy, and later apprenticed with float and costume makers around Europe, started working on behalf of the city’s krewes (you can read more about the Kerns here). The family business now has 15 warehouses around the city where they build floats all year round for the Mardi Gras season. And you thought it was just a day of partying once a year…

For USD$20pp, you can tour one of their warehouses, see some of the artists at work, and learn a hell of a lot about the process of creating these colossal works of art. A few fun facts we learned during our tour…

– The large floats are owned by individual krewes and are stripped each year and re-decorated with new pieces.

– Old props are kept at the warehouses to potentially be re-decorated and re-used by other krewes.

– To create the pieces adorning the floats, the artists use a lot of old school papier mache over polystyrene, which they then paint over.

– There are around 60 odd krewes that each hold a parade over Mardi Gras period – that means 60 different floats and costumes for every. Single. Parade.

 

And if that doesn’t make you want to check it out for yourself, maybe some of those photos I took in there will! Now, to find a way to get back to New Orleans at Mardi Gras time…

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The dining rooms of Antoine’s, New Orleans

Antoine’s
713 St Louis St, New Orleans
http://www.antoines.com

We thought we’d treat ourselves on our last day in New Orleans, and visit one of the city’s classic restaurants. Unfortunately,  it’s not an easy task to pick one… Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, Emeril’s, Arnaud’s, how are you meant to choose?!

We finally settled on Antoine’s not just because of the food, but because of the history. They’ve been around since 1840, when a French immigrant came to America for the chance at a better life, and have been run by the same family ever since. The food is classic French-Creole, and it is delicious! We did the Sunday jazz brunch, and enjoyed their signature fried puffed potatoes, seafood gumbo, eggs benedict, shrimp and grits, and a big rich slice of chocolate layer cake – head on over to Instagram for more on that…

They also have over a dozen magnificent dining rooms, which one of the wonderful servers offered to show us through after we finished our meal. Many of the rooms are still decked out with original floors and light fittings, and they just scream old world charm and elegance. Let me take you through a few of them…

 

The Rex Room
One of three private dining rooms named after and set aside for some of the city’s biggest Mardi Gras krewes. The walls show off photos and memorabilia from past parades, and the rooms welcome their krewes for private dining events.

 

The Proteus Room
Another krewe room, with more photos of the queens of Mardi Gras gracing the walls.

 

The Mystery Room
Located right at the end of this corridor, the Mystery Room served the locals well in the era of prohibition. The floors were covered in saw dust, so when the authorities came bursting in, the revellers would pour their drinks onto the floor and kick up the dust. And the name?

The protocol phrase at table when asked from whence it came was: “It’s a mystery to me.”

 

The Maison Verte Room
This beautiful room was presumably green at some stage, what with it’s name. Today, it’s a stunning white and cream, with a big regal chandelier and enormous framed mirror. The enormous windows let in a heap of natural light, and also open up onto a balcony overlooking the street below.

 

You can read more about the history of Antoine’s here, otherwise if you’re visiting the city, book a table for a delicious meal and take a tour of the place yourself!

Mardi Gras in Melbourne at the Fat Tuesday Southern Food & Music Festival!

Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday. The start of Lent. Call it what you want; it may not mean much to the rest of the world, but in New Orleans, it means everything.

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I was lucky enough to be in New Orleans only a month ago today (Was that all??! Feels like so much more than a month has passed!), and the preparations were well underway. It’s an entity all it’s own over there; long days and sleepless night spent preparing culminate in a festival of parades, parties, music, costumes, and, of course, food. You can learn a little more about the history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans here; while I would love nothing more than to spend a Mardi Gras there one year, it wasn’t gonna happen in 2015. We were pretty lucky then that Melbourne hosted a little Mardi Gras event of its own in the form of the Fat Tuesday Southern Food & Music Festival!

Last night, Melbourne’s best NoLa representative joined forces to put on a Fat Tuesday session on our side of the world; Gumbo Kitchen, Girl With The Gris Gris, Abita Brewery, West Winds Gin and Bluebonnet BBQ brought the tastes of the south to Carlton. The Treme soundtrack blasted in the car on the way to set the mood, and I was excited to have a reminder of the city I fell so in love with so quickly…

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… but alas, it was a bit of an anti-climax. Not sure if I was the only one who noticed the irony of holding this party next to a cemetery, given how important they are in New Orleans, but there ya go! The “party” itself though… I’m not sure I’d have called it a “food and music festival”… three food trucks does not a food festival make. It was insanely busy, the lines for food were mental and there was barely a patch of grass left to sit on by the time 6.45pm rolled around. The music sounded great, with the Horns of Leroy second line blaring as they made their way into Hardy Reserve just after 6pm. But the space was way too small, with many people walking away within minutes of arriving. Waiting over 30 minutes for food wasn’t ideal, and rumour has it the King Cake ran out around 6.30pm.

As for the food, I tried the andouille sausage po boy from Girl With The Gris Gris – tasty, great sausage, but it was no po boy. Sorry guys; I ate my weight in po boys last month, and this just didn’t taste like the ones I ate in New Orleans. I so wanted to like this place, because options of proper New Orleans cuisine in Melbourne are few and far between – still keen on trying some of their other offerings at their restaurant, though.

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Bluebonnet BBQ, while not exactly New Orleans, was a standout winner for me. The brisket on the left was incredible, super tender, delicious charred bits around the edge and fatty bits that literally melted in my mouth. Top marks for that BBQ sauce, too. The pulled pork roll on the right, also amazing – the pork had crazy good flavour, and the slaw was perfect to balance out the rich meat. Worth the 30 minute wait, definitely keen on trying out their restaurant now!

By then, it was around 6.30pm. The crowd was absolutely mental, the lines for food at Gumbo Kitchen were ridiculous, and we couldn’t get a place to sit near the stage to enjoy the music. We gave up and drove to Smith Street for a cup of gumbo at Po Boy Quarter. Now that is some seriously good stuff, pretty damn close to the gumbo we had in New Orleans, and still the best place in Melbourne to get the most authentic food from the crescent city.

So, Fat Tuesday in Melbourne. Success? I guess it depends how you look at it. It was absolutely packed with people within an hour of starting. Food was selling out. Squishy standing room only for the live music. I guess that’d be considered a successful event. But when you look at where it was held; it was basically hosted on a nature strip. It’s a real shame, because this even had so much potential. Southern American food, particularly BBQ, is huge in Melbourne at the moment. Put on an event with good food and live music on a summer night, and Melbournians will turn out in force. But the venue choice was horrible, and detracted from the fun night it could have been. Whether the venue was chosen purposely or if it was more a matter of the inability to get a permit to hold it in a bigger space I don’t know. But hopefully next year they can get a bigger space and more than three eateries involved so people will hang around for longer than an hour and spend their time having fun and partying instead of complaining about the long wait for the food!

 

Girl With The Gris Gris on Urbanspoon

Bluebonnet Barbecue on Urbanspoon

Houses of New Orleans – Mardi Gras preparation

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February 17th. Mardi Gras. New Orleans. The king of all parties. They were getting ready for it when I was there a month ago. It’s about to begin. How I wish I was there for it…

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Read this: Nine Lives by Dan Baum

Nine Lives
by Dan Baum

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Being less than a week out from Mardi Gras, I thought now would be a good time to post this review about an amazing book I read about New Orleans, while in New Orleans last month.

Dan Baum’s book starts back in the 1960s with the occurrence of Hurricane Betsy, and ends not long after the more recent events of Hurricane Katrina, as told by nine New Orleanians who lived through one or both events.

Ronald Lewis, John/JoAnn Guidos, Anthony Wells, Joyce Montana, Frank Minyard, Billy Grace, Belinda Carr, Wilbert Rawlins Jr and Tim Bruneau are the voices behind this book, a truly beautiful biography of a people and a city unlike any other in the United States of America. Through countless interviews with Baum, these men and women told their stories, candidly and truthfully, to weave an amazing story that really captured your heart and imagination from the start, more so than any work of fiction could have.

The stories in this book were real and raw, and true to New Orleans, touching subjects and walks of life dear to the hearts of many New Orleanians, such as the musicians, the police, the Mardi Gras Indians, the poor single mothers, the working professionals and the criminals. The stories were told without judgement, and it was hard not to form a bond to the characters in those pages.

I found it really hard to read the last chapters of the book, the stories that came from Katrina. I remember, vividly, seeing those images that everyone else saw on the TV when it happened back in 2005 (was it really that long ago??); the crying woman sitting on a roof, holding a baby, water lapping at her feet. The men wheeling shopping trollies through the water, trying to rescue babies on their way. People crammed into the Superdome. The markings on surviving homes, indicating the number of dead found within. Seeing it all on TV, in papers, online, is horrific. Reading about it, however, in the stories told by the survivors, is infinitely more powerful.

It wasn’t all about the hurricanes, though. It was about every day life. About the same struggles people all over the world face. Finding a job, getting through a divorce, trying to live a good life without getting into trouble with the law, doing something meaningful with your life. It might be the same stories all over the world, but the way New Orleans does things in the face of situations like this is different. It’s not something you can explain or describe, there was no one passage or quote that could sum it up, it’s just a beautiful piece of work that you should be reading. Pick up a copy here and enjoy the journey.