Embracing Fat Tuesday
©Linda Watanabe McFerrin
NEW ORLEANS — PINOCCHIO zooms by on roller skates, thin, hairy legs protruding from green lederhosen. Three Elvises swivel past, hips rotating like long-playing records. A besequined, masked stranger raises his wine glass and blows me a kiss. Scandalous. Ridiculous. Crazy. Taboo. It’s Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras, the most delightfully wicked time of the year and the last chance to be naughty before buckling into Lent’s iron girdle, the 40 days of abstinence and contrition that precede Easter. As a good Catholic girl, I remember Ash Wednesday: the dingy thumbprint on my forehead, the hard edge of the church pews. But it wasn’t until I could buy my own plane ticket that I greeted Lent in the proper manner—New Orleans’ style.
The roots of New Orleans Mardi Gras run deep. Its antecedents were most probably the ancient fertility rituals that heralded Spring. Beginning with French explorer Iberville, who on March 3, 1699, christened his campsite 60 miles south of present-day New Orleans “Point du Mardi Gras,” its most ardent champions have been French. The festival flourished in New Orleans under French rule and today the French Quarter is the best place to enjoy it. Nowadays in New Orleans, they celebrate Fat Tuesday for nearly two weeks.
A clever person will stay for two weeks in a French Quarter flat, attend elegant New Orleans soirees and wild Cajun wing-dings and sample the fabulous fare of world-class restaurants like Tujague’s, Mr. B’s and K-Paul’s. That person will indulge so fully and have such a gluttonous time that Fat Tuesday will really be fat and Lent a welcome reprieve. But even if you’re only able to drop in on the party for a few carefree days and don’t know a soul in the city, you can pack in the parades, party in the streets and chow down at some of those legendary palaces of provender.
When battalions of floats and their attendant throngs move through the city, streets close to autos, so it’s best to be traveling on foot. In the charming French Quarter, everything is within walking distance. Overhead, French doors open onto lacy wrought-iron second-, third-, and fourth-floor balconies. During Mardi Gras these are perfect vantage points for parade-viewing. If you’re part of the unruly mob in the street, you’ll want to position yourself beneath them. A shower of pearls and doubloons will be your reward. During Mardi Gras, “throws,” like ropes of plastic pearls and specially minted counterfeit coins, are as prized as the real thing, and it is a point of great pride to amass these favors. It makes one mindful of the buccaneers who must have once commanded the Quarter and their pirates’ ransoms of jewels and gold. What kind of performance deserves a “throw?” It can be anything from a simple plea, to a jig, to a long-dreamed desire, acted out.
There are also the usual French Quarter pleasures. Few people in the Quarter rise early, so make a beeline, first thing in the morning, for the Cafe du Monde to avoid the crowds that usually swarm it. There you’ll start your day with beignets—light puffs of fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar – and strong chicory coffee. This is addicting, so be sure to buy boxes of beignet mix and cans of coffee to take home. From the Cafe du Monde, it’s a short walk, riverside, to book onto a Mississippi riverboat tour. Maybe you’ll see a mink or a muskrat slipping into the cafe-au-lait-colored waters. Visit the antique stores along Royal Street to gawk at the silver or pick out a special bauble and buy it. Tour some of the landmark buildings like the Ursuline Convent or the home of writer, Frances Keyes Parkington.
At Jackson Square, if you’re craving a lift, you’ll find handcrafted marionettes, masks, outrageous hats and a line of horse-drawn carriages that will take you wherever you are planning to dine. Do not neglect the restaurants. The cuisine – Creole, Cajun and French – is superb, and the service is often unparalleled. In New Orleans the waiters are artists. Experienced, adept and theatrical, they’re worth watching. Wine will only heighten your appreciation, and you’ll quaff plenty of that to accompany gumbos, jambalayas and etouffes full of crayfish, prawns and hot andouille sausage. After this you will still have time to experience an evening on Bourbon Street, to stumble from one fine jazz club to the next, to muscle your way into Preservation Hall and listen to Dixieland jazz or into O’Brien’s to down a Hurricane or a whisky, neat. The next day you’ll know why they rise late in the Quarter.
Running through all of this, like filaments of purple, emerald and gold—the traditional Mardi Gras colors—are the parades. They take place evenings and weekends, and they have been an integral part of New Orleans Mardi Gras since 1837. Almost from the start, they were monopolized by secret carnival societies called “krewes,” each with a mythological namesake and the responsibility of presenting a themed parade. Today there are more than 50 krewes. Rex and the Knights of Comus are two of the oldest. Both debuted in 1872. Zulu, the black krewe, was unofficially formed in 1906. The first Zulu King, meant to mock the King of Carnival created by Rex, carried a banana stalk for a scepter and sported a can of lard for a crown. The politics of the black community changed, but Zulu survived, and in 1992, a strange circle was completed when Rex opened its membership to African Americans.
In addition to the formal, extravagant and well-regulated pomp of the krewes, with their celebrity kings and private Mardi Gras parties, there’s plenty of impromptu pageantry in the streets. Informal parades, costume competitions and confrontations with the bizzare abound.
Emotions run high during this festival, as they must have when the pirate Jean Lafitte held the port. At one party, our Cajun hostess, in a fight with her lover, turned all her guests into the street. A cold five minutes later we were back in her flat, her hysteria past, tears spangling her beautiful cheeks. After all, Mardi Gras is a passionate time, a time for wild innuendo, cheeky rejoinders and unexpected incidents. You will fall in and out of love with the objects of your fantasy. You may even end up, as I did, giving up Lent altogether and embracing Fat Tuesday.
—Linda Watanabe McFerrin