Sunday, January 25, 2009

Celebrating Mardi Gras

If you live in the south, you know all about Mardi Gras, but for those in other areas of the country, the distinctly Southern celebration remains a bit of a mystery. This Mardi Gras FAQ will explain it all.

What is Mardi-Gras?
Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday is the celebration leading up to lent. Mardi Gras season officially begins on Twelfth Night, or the Feast of the Epiphany, and concludes on Shrove Tuesday, just before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of lent. Traditionally it is a time of feasting and celebrations before the onset of the upcoming sacrifices. In the old days, and to many Catholics today, this mostly meant the eschewing of meat. Hence Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, which in years past was known as Boeuf Gras.

Boeuf Gras? But doesn't Emeril say Pork Fat Rules?
Superstar chef Emeril Lagasse may think "pork fat rules" but the Creole ancestors who inspired his cuisine evidently thought higher of beef fat. Mardi Gras was originally known as Boeuf Gras, in homage to the last feast of meat before the culinary austerity of the Lenten season. In other areas of the world, the celebration is known as Carnival, from the Latin for "farewell to flesh."

From 1872-1901 a live ox graced New Orleans' Rex Parade. Today, a papier mache symbol of Boeuf Gras takes its place.

Where did Mardi Gras begin in the U.S.?
Most people would answer New Orleans. Is that their final answer? Probably yes? New Orleans, final answer, thanks for playing, sorry no million dollars!

The correct answer is Mobile, Alabama where Mardi Gras is still celebrated in grand style today -- there are thirty-five events listed on Mobile's 2000 parade schedule. Visitors to Mobile can view dazzling Mardi Gras costumes as well as other Fat Tuesday historical memorabilia, year round, at the Museum of Mobile located at 355 Government Street (334-208-7569).

Where else is Mardi Gras celebrated in the U.S.?
New Orleans, of course, but you can also find parades and festivities in most of the towns that dot the gulf coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and even east Texas. Families will especially find some the smaller celebrations more appealing than the wild and crazy debauchery of The Big Easy.

What's so different about a Mardi Gras parade?
They're interactive and you get stuff. Masses of screeching parade enthusiasts, arms outstretched like beggars clamoring for a last meal, beseech Krewe members to throw barrels of trinkets -- colorful plastic beads and imprinted aluminum doubloons. CAUTION: Mardi Gras parades can cause temporary insanity and people will do things for a worthless piece of plastic that defy reason. So, be prepared to be somewhat aggressive if you want loot!

Oh, so you won't look like a tourist, the proper Mardi Gras parade cheer is "Throw me Something Mister!"

What is a King Cake?
A king cake is a traditional Mardi Gras treat, brightly decorated in the colors of Rex: purple, green and gold. The cake, which is similar to a rich sweet bread or coffee cake, contains a special surprise-- a tiny baby doll hidden within one of the slices. Custom dictates that the "lucky" recipient who gets the piece with the baby throws the next Mardi Gras party (or bakes the next King Cake).

King Cakes have become a Friday afternoon tradition for many offices in the south. Click here for my King Cake recipe (you'll find both traditional and bread machines version at this link).

How does Mardi Gras differ for locals as opposed to tourists?
Mardi Gras is actually the height of the Southern Social season. It is accompanied by endless rounds of formal balls, proceeded over by elaborately costumed courts. Each ball is sponsored by a "Krewe" which also foots the bill for a parade or float in a larger parade, depending on the size and budget of the krewe. The word "krewe" was supposedly chosen to give an "Old English" feel the clubs.

Can I go to a ball?
Sorry Cinderella, Mardi Gras balls are private affairs and by invitation only. However, you could get lucky and meet someone in the krewe who might just invite you. Your chances increase significantly depending upon your sex. Many balls follow the 5-1 ratio tradition. In other words, if it's a men's krewe, each male member invites five women to the ball. The reverse is true if it is a women's krewe. Those Southerners know how to party! Also, keep in mind that, just like other Mardi Gras events, there are plenty of balls outside of New Orleans.

Being formal events, each Mardi Gras ball's merriment is presided over by the King, Queen and Court, all attired in elaborate, obscenely expensive costumes. Each court member's gown has enough beads and jewels to outfit an entire cast of Vegas showgirls, and possibly a drag show or two to boot. Mardi Gras, when you play at this level, is a mighty expensive proposition.

So extravagant is the spectacle of a ball, that each member is also allowed to distribute a given number of "viewing passes." The pass doesn't entitle the bearer to actually participate in the party, but they are allowed the privilege watching it from the sidelines. That's right, no cocktails, no dancing and (horror of horrors), none of the incredible banquet that seems to stretch for miles! Nonetheless, if you have the chance to view a ball, grab it. It is an unforgettable experience.

What is Mardi Gras like in New Orleans?
It's a wild party for a month or more leading up to the big day. On the day before Mardi Gras or Lundi Gras, the kings of the Krewes of Rex and Zulu travel down the Mississippi River to New Orleans to prepare for the celebration. For New Orleans society, the day ends just before midnight at the Krewe of Comus ball and the "meeting of the courts." When Rex and his Queen arrive, the orchestra will traditionally play his theme song "If I Ever Cease to Love." Comus and Rex each escort each other's queens around the ballroom floor, before being seated on their thrones. At the stroke of midnight, Rex will wave the royal scepter and Mardi Gras is officially over until next year.

For the common folks wallowing in the midst of the French Quarter, the Witching Hour brings the official clearing of the streets. Entire lines of mounted police slowly march down the center of the narrow, litter strewn, French Quarter thoroughfares and clear the crowd. The spectacle is as impressive as any parade and I highly recommend finding a good sidewalk cafe, or even better, a balcony from which to observe.

More on Mardi Gras

No comments:

Post a Comment