The party may be just starting in New Orleans, but Mardi Gras celebrations have been taking place throughout the state of Louisiana. Marcy MacDonald investigates the big business of Mardi Gras and explains how you can experience the local traditions … without flashing a single body part. Whether you’re winging or rolling on the river to Mardi Gras: laissez les bon temps rouler!
Although Louisiana isn’t the only state to celebrate the last blast before Lent, it certainly has a firm grasp on the millions that change hands during the days—and nights—of Mardi Gras, in every city.
From the first King Cake seen on Twelfth Night (January 6), to the stroke of Midnight that marks Ash Wednesday (March 8 when police even shut Bourbon Street down for Lent), Louisiana is celebrating the “season.”
Each region plays it differently, and some of the biggest money is spent in the smallest towns.
In Minden, Louisiana, the Mardi Gras is the New World version of German Fasching which began November 11. Their big parade was February 19 and the celebration runs until Lent. Kaching, kaching! It all costs money. Lots of it.
Wearing the most modest Mardi Gras gear and buying the cheapest ticket to the events (parades, parties, balls, special meals) can still cost the average celebrant $200 without decorating a cake or a front door.
All is explained by tiny Eunice Georgie Manuel of the Eunice Depot Museum (the train depot is no longer, only the museum.) “It would cost anybody about $30 just to go for the Mardi Gras chicken run: the whole purpose is catching and cooking a chicken before you starve yourself for Lent!”
That’s right, a longstanding event in Minden is the chicken run, when townspeople catch a chicken to prepare traditional filé gumbo. Also in this part of Louisiana, tradition dictates dressing in “chicken colors” of reds, greens and yellows, unlike the purples, greens and golds of other cities.
In Cajun country, a ticket to hear Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys is in high demand, and could cost anything from $15 for nosebleed seats to $120 for ringside.
(In case you wanted to know the difference between Cajun and Creole: the original Cajuns—French Acadians thrown out of Canada by the English Huguenots—came south to western Louisiana. Creoles came from the Caribbean islands and settled in New Orleans. Of course, you ask four Louisianians the difference you’ll get five different answers.)
In Lake Charles, a stop at the Mardi Gras Museum yields the encyclopaedic A.C. Bourdier, a former loan manager at the local bank: “I can’t tell you how many people would apply for loans for $50 or $100,000, just to keep up appearances during Mardi Gras,” he notes.
The King and Queen and their Courts and Krewes (social clubs) can spend thousands just on the costumes, more on renting the hall (and the band) for the costume ball, distributing gifts (and the all important Carnival beads to give to perfect strangers), making the float for the parade (“and not all Krewes parade” assures the affable A.C.), catering and treating partygoers to meals seemingly round the clock. “And treating your daughter to a coming-out party can, literally, break the bank.”
Just a few miles down the road from Lake Charles is the town of Sulphur, where a trip to Misse’s Grocery for its famous King cakes is a must.
These are pastry wreaths filled with everything from banana cream to butterscotch and chocolate, not to mention four tiny dolls, any one of which could bring instant luck to its consumer.
“We shipped about 6,000 King cakes last season,” Jennifer-the-manager said of these traditional Mardi Gras empty calories, “But this year it’s a longer season with more already sold than last year.”
For a true Louisiana delicacy, a trip to the famous Sausage Link smoker and diner yields boudin (shredded pork with a variety of spices, packed into an intestine to form a sausage) with Kevin Downs who makes tons of the stuff daily and “more in Mardi Gras season.”
Meanwhile, the drive to the town of LaFayette should include a stop at Prejean’s Restaurant for real Cajun flavor with Zydeco music and praline-dusted bacon alongside enormous entrees: pretty much mandatory eating during the season..
Of course, America’s sexiest city is still rolling on the river: New Orleans has come back, again. The French Quarter (often called the Vieux Carre) celebrates a kind of Mardi Gras every day, but this time of year the party is especially indulgent.
As cuisine expert John Mariani confirms: “The excesses of Mardi Gras include the very definition: Fat Tuesday. After 40 days of self-denial, Lent, according to Christian abstinence, the last gasp of gastronomic excess, and in a state known for gastro excess most days of the year, this is the Super Bowl of eating.”
According to Mariani, the dining takes place in resaurants and private parties all day. The day may begin with the first three beignets and cup of chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde, or a cocktail (think Sazerac, a drink and the name of the first Ladies Bar in town, still open in the Roosevelt New Orleans, or champagne with and a big breakfast, followed by Bananas Foster, at Brennan’s—and stay all night.
One of the common excesses at this time of year is egg dishes, like the Louisiana Creole dish, eggs Sardou with a hollandaise sauce, artchokes and spinach, which was invented at Antoine’s, says Mariani.
Don’t forget the flaming Creole heart-attack-food at Arnaud’s (you can visit its private Mardi Gras museum, upstairs, during dining hours). But the best po’ boys (dry or sloppy) are still served at Rocky & Carlo’s in Chalmette, also suitably fluffed-up for the season.
But even in New Orleans it’s not all about the food. Events and parties are big business in town, more than just the top-baring, bead-tossing extravaganza we see in the French Quarter.
“Most New Orleaneans don’t go into the Quarter during Mardi Gras, unless they live there,” affirms Gwen Jones who has captained a Krewe or two during the season. “The usual suspects—Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Nicolas Cage, Fats Domino—do Mardi Gras every year, inside and outside the Quarter.”
In fact, the celebrations that take place may be ones that tourists don’t even know about.
“Most of the old-line Krewes were supposed to be mysterious and secret,” says former debutante Diane Laboussie. “But today with Krewes like Bacchus, where celebrities serve as Kings each year, it’s a lot more open. There are parading Krewes and non-parading krewes … but almost all the Krewes host a ball, with a King, Queen and Court.”
“In 2000, I was captain of the Millenium Ball, Neophenephrous, and the first $60,000 I spent only covered the making of the costume. The backdrop, rental of the space, lighting, music, any odds and ends—it goes on and on—the expense was enormous. You sell tickets to the ball to pay the costs, and by having fundraisers all year. And that was for a small, social women’s ball.”
Some of the hottest tickets in town are those you can’t buy, for instance the very private invitation to Rex and Comus, the two oldest and most social organizations that come together for the grand finale of the season at the stroke of midnight.
One of the most famous LGBT balls is Aman Ra, which celebrated to a huge invite-only crowd—at a cost of hundreds of thousands—on February 5. “And do these boys dress,” says Jones. “A gown for $50,000 may be considered mid-range.”
If you want to go behind the scenes, Mardi Gras World is where floating magic is made: You watch the artists of the Blaine Kern Studio world-renowned masters of Carnival style at work in their shops, where they incorporate technology into mega-floats for between $40,000 and $175,000. Anamatronics cost much, much more.
Jimmy Maxwell, the big bandleader for every society set Carnival ball in living history, affirms, “Doing Mardi Gras could become a permanent, expensive addiction.” This from a man on the receiving end of the expenses. “But then discussing money can be so vulgar.”
Amen: laissez les bon temps rouler!
Related links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- Fat Tuesday 2009: Tips And Guide To Mardi Gras in New Orleans & Beyond
- Spotlight On: New Orleans, Louisiana
- Ask the Locals Travel Guide: New Orleans, Louisiana
- New Orleans Restaurants, National Parks and Travelers’ Rights
By Marcy MacDonald for PeterGreenberg.com. Marcy MacDonald is a New York-based freelance writer covering travel and lifestyle for national publications.