As a native New Orleanian who’s spent many a Mardi Gras season celebrating here in New Orleans, it’s hard to devise a starting point for collecting and condensing the multitude of Mardi Gras memories I’ve made in this lifetime. My mind whirls with excitement right now, just trying to take them all in—from creative costumes and king cakes to the Boeuf Gras and barrels of beads. I’ve loved all contributions to Carnival, this city’s biggest holiday, the one that rises high above the rest regarding cultural uniqueness in this nation.
My earliest Mardi Gras recollections involve my parents, my brother and I taking off in the family’s Plymouth Duster, replete with ladder awkwardly hanging out the back of the trunk, sufficiently prepared to conquer the crowds with a literal head-and-shoulders advantage above the rest. The sheer thrill of being hoisted up on that ladder in the sky and having a veritable shower of trinkets and stuffed animals hurled our way with each passing float—with my father there to help us catch the things our young hands couldn’t quite grasp (which was just about everything!)—was mind-blowing. We’d play with those spoils of war, from Frisbee rings to teddy bears until the day came when my mother would turn the plastic pile over to St. Michael’s Special School or to friends who rode in parades. We’d have to wait till next year to catch more.
Getting to eat king cake for weeks at a time was, for me—a woman who today must limit her Krispy Kreme intake to avoid getting too cracked-out on carbs—a dream come true. Not only did we have it at school each Friday during the Mardi Gras season, but my mother made it a point to stock up on those braided, sugary oval beauties from Mr. Lawrence’s Bakery (Mr. Wedding Cake) on Elysian Fields and stick a few in the freezer so we’d still be feasting on king cakes after Easter. And no plastic king cake baby went unrecycled in the Fontana home; they’d surprisingly appear in homemade muffins my mom would make for breakfast, and our friends who slept over were duly impressed to find tiny pink babies in their food— even after Carnival was long gone. How did that muffin find itself with child?!
Having relatives on the parade route was the primo Mardi Gras benefit. We’d book it over to Aunt Josie, Aunt Rosalie and Uncle Angelo’s—the absolute holy trinity of great aunts and uncles—for many a Mardi Gras. Hot dogs floating in crock pots, boxes of fried chicken and chili-stained tablecloths always lined the card tables on their front porch and signaled that Carnival was in full swing. We’d get to see the entire extended family—all our grandparents and cousins, our uncles and aunts—including Aunt Helen, an athletic, cunning octogenarian with a major talent for spotting the important dubloons (like the ones that scored you free Popeye’s Chicken) and acquiring them in whatever manner necessary. Aunt Helen used her deft moves for getting many dubloons beneath her shoe at once, to the overwhelming chagrin of the kids, teens and men in the family. When the rare occasion arose where she couldn’t make the kill herself, she had no problem prying others’ feet from the ground and plundering bounties; the “play fair” rules never applied to wily, unethical Helen the Hun.
I remember hanging out with friends for Carnival and having the best of times, like meeting up with the gang at “The Mardi Gras Tree” on Bonnabel Boulevard—a live tree whose branches were saturated with thousands of colorful stands of beads—and walking as far as possible before we’d meet the parade head on and then run back to congregate under that wild tree with other friends, and a billion other folks we’d never met. Then I’d ramp things up a notch and hang with the rowdy friends, a group always game for getting together for events like the Krewe of Bacchus Annual Rendezvous; the day after this stunning event I had foggy recollections of dancing until morning and chasing the Bacchagator, the Bacchasaurus and the Bacchawhoppa all through the Convention Center in a floor-length gown and four-inch heels—for plastic beads, mind you. But better yet was being subjected to your friends’ really rowdy friends, like the girlfriend of a friend who showed up at the end of a parade “feeling a little sick” and needing to “use the bathroom.” After not making the loo in time, she decorated the guestfilled front room with a projectile blanketing of the indubitable “Mardi Gras Flu.” Funny how I can’t shake the least favorite of memories; they’re lodged in my Mardi Gras history forever.
I’ve been away from home for Mardi Gras, too. And each time I’m gone—even when I’m on a fantastic vacation—I feel like I’m missing one great celebration of laughter and life with my loved ones and friends. Hearing wonderful music while having the best Mexican food in Austin, Texas, is a blast, but when I’m downing guacamole and chips on Endymion Saturday night, my mind wonders to flambeaux throwers and everyone in New Orleans stomping their feet to the infectious rhythms of St. Augustine’s famed Marching 100. Having quiet tea service off a wintry window ledge and watching people frolic in a snowy park in Hamburg, Germany, is a transporting, Zen-like experience for me, but while it’s just another Tuesday in Deutschland, my internal calendar screams “It’s Fat Tuesday back home!” I’m geared up again for Mardi Gras this year, and I can’t wait to squeeze some more memories out of it.