When I was in Ohio over the holidays, my cousin asked me about Mardi Gras because he was thinking about visiting. Like most people up north and maybe everywhere that's not Louisiana, he thought that Mardi Gras was just about one day, with one major parade. I was like, au contraire!

I told him that, no, Carnival Season lasts for six weeks or so, with the real serious partying going on for at least two of those weeks. Mardi Gras Day is actually the sprint to the finish when we're all, okay we can do this! One more day of binge drinking and then we can relax until Easter. Thank god, my liver hurts.

And like my cousin, when I first moved down here a few years ago, I thought the same thing he did. I thought it was just a day, Fat Tuesday. I thought there were maybe a few parades.

Yeah, I had no idea what I was about to witness.

So for everyone visiting for Mardi Gras, or thinking about it – and for anyone who just moved down (and for any locals who like to laugh at naïve transplants) – here is a small, practical guide to Carnival Season in New Orleans.

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is what starts it all. Just when the craziness of Christmas and New Years settles down and you start getting kind of depressed because you realize that you miss all those cute Target Christmas commercials, you hear that it's Twelfth Night. This gives us folks in Louisiana a ray of hope and excitement about what's to come, while the rest of the country gets to look forward to dreary cold weather without any of the romance of Christmas. While most states get to look forward to Valentine's Day (ouch), we in Louisiana get to look forward to a month of parties and general hedonism.

Damn, I love it here.


King Cake

While living in Ohio, the only thing I knew about King Cake was that Emeril made it on his show once. However, after my first Carnival season I was quite familiar with it because it's everywhere. We're still in the beginning stages of the season and we've already had several king cakes in our office kitchen (and there's a half-eaten Rouse's cake in my kitchen as I write this). We had it at my future mother-in-law's house last night for dessert after dinner. I went past Randazzo's the other day and there was a line out the door to get one of their famous king cakes. By the time Mardi Gras Day rolls around, everyone in New Orleans will have probably had 50-odd pieces of king cake. And then on Ash Wednesday it goes away … only to return on the next Twelfth Night. And thank god, because you just can't think about stuffing another piece of it in your face at that point.

And everyone has their favorite King Cake. Just like "best burgers" and "best pizza" discussions, we also have "best King Cake" discussions and arguments. Most will say Randazzo's or Haydel's, and they are wonderful, but my hands-down favorite is the apple-and-goat-cheese king cake from the Cake Café, with a close second going to the Nutella king cake from La Dolce Nola. Ohmigod. Heaven.


Other food

Mardi Gras usually happens around the beginning of crawfish season. You'll be walking down the street and all of a sudden smell a wonderful spicy draft of crawfish boil, you'll hear that lovely windy sound of a propane tank boiling a huge pot of mudbugs and you'll know that spring and Strawberry Abita are on the way. Every Friday night, the pubs around New Orleans brew their special boil. You'll notice that some are better than others … one bar might have whole garlic cloves in their boil that you can spread on french bread or saltines. Others might have great sausage. My favorite place puts pineapple in their boil as well as plenty of corn on the cob (corn is important to Ohioans).

Krewe du Vieux

A "krewe" is a group of people who belong to a club that puts on a parade. There are tons. Sometimes they are mystic, as in "The Mistick Krewe of Comus". It's all very mysteriously cool and medieval-sounding. And apparently there has to be clever spelling involved as you can't spell Krewe like "crew," and "mystic" sometimes has to be spelled with an "i." I'm not sure why this is, but like with a lot of traditions down here, I don't ask questions and just do as I'm told.

Krewe du Vieux is one of my favorite parades (I'll talk about my absolute favorite in my next blog) and what I've come to think of as the start of the great parades. It marks the beginning of the serious partying and the fight with your liver. This year, the parade is on February 4th and it winds its way through the Marigny and French Quarter. It's a politically satirical parade and the floats are hilarious. Also, the throws can get very interesting. Last year we were thrown several condoms and a piece of plastic poop. This parade, by the way, was the one depicted in the first season of "Treme" when John Goodman's character and his family dressed up like sperm.

It's a great parade (though, warning, if you think Rick Santorum would be a great president, this parade might incite a heart attack). I will definitely be there with my friends to witness the spectacle and live the dream of Mardi Gras.


For my next blog (Part II), I'll be getting into the main events, the "super krewes" and the delightful craziness of Mardi Gras Day.

Also, for anyone wanting to know more about Carnival Season, check out our resident expert, Editor-in-Chief Errol Laborde, who is making weekly videos to get us excited for the season.