The Carnival season returns, but after a year missing out on parades and floats and neutral ground picnics, many New Orleanians are celebrating more than just a return to the route. The Carnival celebration means catching up with friends and family; cultivating the perfect purple, green and gold look; setting up the family ladder, wagon or lawn chairs in just the right spot.
It’s about sharing the experience and the joy of Carnival creators, artists, makers and musicians. It goes way beyond floats. It’s about being together, whether physically or (Mardi Gras) spiritually.
We asked some familiar faces, “What does Mardi Gras mean to you?” and the answers, while varied, all reflect the same themes: Carnival and Mardi Gras goes beyond beads and floats; it lives within the souls of the community that make it come alive.
Big Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson
Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society
My father, the late Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., was born during the Carnival season, January 27th. It is absolutely my favorite time of year. It’s family time, sewing parties, singing and listening to my father sing “Two-Way-Pockey-Way” and “Shallow Water” from my brother Big Chief Donald Harrison, Jr.’s iconic recording, Indian Blues daily as motivation and in anticipation of the big day. Mardi Gras is the culmination of the Carnival Season. It is the day I debut my original fine art ceremonial attire, also known as a suit. It’s a hard deadline, one I rarely miss. As my dad often said, “a suit is never truly finished, when it’s time to go, put it on and walk out of the door.” Mardi Gras means walking out-of-the-door as pretty, pretty Queen Reesie of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society.
Favorite parade route meal: Petite chicken salad croissants with a dash of hot sauce, Zapp’s potato chips, fresh pineapple chunks, an ice cold Barq’s Red Cream Soda in a can or a spicy ginger beer in a bottle. I am a queen, I have a very specific royal diet.
Bo Dollis, Jr.
Musician and Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias
Mardi Gras is 24/7 life, if I’m not masking Indian, I’m performing with my band bringing Mardi Gras to the world. I can skip Christmas, Thanksgiving or my birthday and go straight to Mardi Gras.
Favorite parade route meal: On Carnival, they have food trucks on St. Charles, and they have Polish sausage po-boys – that’s when you know it’s Mardi Gras.
Historian Arthur Hardy says parading can be traced to the days of the Roman Empire, when massive military and coronation processions were held. The Phoenicians put wheels on ships and pulled them through the streets in victory parades. They did the same in Spain with small ships called flotas. Etymologists suggest “carnival” came from “carrus navavlis” – or, “ships on wheels.” (“Mardi Gras in New Orleans: An Illustrated History”)
Mardi Gras is known for its official colors: purple, green and gold. Rex chose them in 1872, but Hardy is not sure why. In 1950, when Rex felt compelled to assign a meaning to each color, he recalled his 1892 parade, “Symbolism of Colors,” where each float’s color carried a theme. Rex decreed: purple stands for justice, gold for power and green for faith. (“Mardi Gras in New Orleans: An Illustrated History”)
In the decades following World War II, Americans gravitated toward more sugary foods. So in the 1960s, king cake bakers experimented with sweeter doughs, and in the 1970s, icing. By the 1980s, sweet fillings were added, and the king cake’s evolution to its present form was nearly complete. Today, the variety of king cakes seems endless. (“The Big Book of King Cake”)
Pastry Chef, Co-owner, Gracious Bakery
Not having a proper Mardi Gras last year really brought into focus how meaningful the season is to me personally, to us as business owners and to New Orleans as a whole. At its most basic level, there is the action of connecting with others that happens at parades, parties and over king cake that just doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. But it is so integral to New Orleans as a community and last year, we all really missed that. As a business owner, we love to see customers respond so well to seasonal products- and economically we rely on it.
Favorite parade route meal: Well, I have to say [Gracious Bakery’s] savory hand pies, grilled cheeses and hot roast beef sandwiches are everyone’s favorites on our parade menu. If I’m outsourcing, it’s got to be Popeyes!
Executive Chef and President Link Restaurant Group, Co-founder, Link Stryjewski Foundation
Mardi Gras for me? My favorite part is walking up Magazine Street and visiting friends on the route, and when possible, introducing first timers to Mardi Gras. [My favorite parade is] Muses, always at a friend’s house Uptown, or random places along Magazine. My daughter and I, before she left for college, always watched Muses together at Herbsaint. You could also say it is what I miss the most about Mardi Gras too.
Favorite parade route meal: McHardy’s Fried Chicken.
When the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club honored Louis Armstrong as king in 1949, Armstrong told Time magazine, “There’s a thing I’ve dreamed of all my life, and damned if it don’t look like it’s about to come true – to be King of Zulu’s parade.” He boasted a strong connection to the club. During the parade, he was able to greet his grandmother, Josephine. Unfortunately his float broke before reaching the end of the route; it was destroyed by souvenir hunters. (“Mardi Gras in New Orleans: An Illustrated History”)
Muses is credited with being the first krewe to parade with adult marching groups – and ones with cheeky names, at that – including the Bearded Oysters, the Camel Toe Lady Steppers and the Muff-A-Lottas. The parade launched in 2001 with the theme, “Muses’ First Time,” 600 women and dazzling signature throws. The krewe honors a muse each year, rather than a king or queen. (“Mardi Gras in New Orleans: An Illustrated History”)
Executive Editor, Renaissance Publishing, Host of “Beyond the Beads” Podcast
Y’all, we have to realize that what we have here is something that is really, really special.
New Orleans is blessed to have one of the world’s major urban street festivals. There are days each year when a million or so people mingle, dance and boogie, most often in peace. That is priceless. Some of the music they dance to is itself from the streets. Imagine people in neighborhoods and neutral grounds dancing to the city’s own sound including rhythm and blues, jazz and Mardi Gras Indians chants. Top that Houston or Atlanta!
We’re blessed that the weather is usually favorable for Carnival and that there are plenty people who care about Carnival because they grew up here. And if there is a father who is anxiously awaiting the year when his daughter can be a maid or queen of a ball, there’s nothing wrong with that. It is another benefit of the urban experience.
What is especially amazing is that the parades are paid for by the participants. Corporate underwriting is not allowed. Last year when there were no parades allowed, the neighborhoods created their own parade of house floats. If the floats could not come to the people, the people went to the floats. How special is that?
As the Mardi Gras Indians might say: “Iko! Iko! Jock-a-mo Fee No Nay.” No one knows exactly what that means, but it is believed to say roughly “we mean business; don’t mess with us.” Good advice on the streets of an urban carnival.
Favorite parade food meal: There are two types of parade foods; those bought from a stand or those lifted from the table at a pre-parade party. Of the former there is one that distinguishes itself above all others, spewing an oniony fragrance from the gawdy vendors’ trailers that add a touch of Vegas class along key parade routes. What else could it be but the polish sausage sandwich? In preparation, a sausage link is plopped into a bun. That link embellishes the night air with its own eau de boiled sausage. But there are more flavors to come. The sausage IS ladled with onion slivers, pepper pieces and steamy chopped greens. From there the customer makes choices by splashing on mustard; brown, or, for visual embodiment, yellow. Catsup is optional, but why?
Back in the old country, fine cuts of meat are usually enhanced by a wine; but for a polish sausage sandwich the need is different. There is one drink that works perfectly: a Coke. Properly served in a tall Styrofoam cup with lots of ice, the drink adds EFFERESCENCE to the experience and, to the discriminating tastebud: Does the Coke have a hint of strawberry? If that’s important you, try the cotton candy stand nearby.
Founder, Krewe of House Floats
Mardi Gras is all about getting together with friends and family, letting loose and setting the worries of everyday life aside for a time. It is when New Orleans really gets to shine and everybody gets to live a little (or maybe a lot) more than folks in other places.
Favorite parade route meal: Popeyes and king cake! But mostly king cake.
Feature Film and TV Actor
Mardi Gras means a gathering of family friends, and neighbors. You already know that over the course of a few weeks, you will see those you are close to and those you haven’t seen over the years. Mardi Gras allows us to fill a huge capacity of joy, while we reflect on those we have lost, with their memory warming our hearts. It’s the biggest block party in the world. My favorite parade is the entrance of a rival gang of Mardi Gras Indians to the last Indian practice on the Sunday night before Lundi Gras. To be in a small local bar, the location is a guarded secret that is ultimately exposed, then … here they come. The place is filled with drumming, dancing and the age-old chants passed from generation to generation. They next appear on Mardi Gras morning in the most “pretty” living works of art.
Favorite parade route meal: During Mardi Gras, “adult” beverages dominate my intake, but when the hunger hits, a hot sausage sandwich off of somebody’s grill on the neutral ground hits the spot.
New Orleans Saints defensive end
Being a part of the city and coming down here 10 years ago, seeing the traditions and celebrations; it’s special. You learn about the greasing of the poles, you learn about the floats and the time that goes into them and the people that create them. Mardi Gras is a special time and it’s become one of my favorite holidays. I love the Zulu ball. I love Endymion, Bacchus, any parade you go to you’re going to have blast. But I look forward to the Zulu parade at the end, that’s an awesome parade to attend. I love catching the coconuts!
Favorite parade route meal: I would skip the meal and go straight to king cake! Randazzo’s is a staple, Haydel’s is phenomenal and then you got Dong Phuong. That’s the top three, no order, you can interchange those and be happy with any of them.
Founding Member of the Krewe of Muses
To me, Mardi Gras is a couple of weeks of spending quality time with friends and going to lots of parades since I live inside “the box” and can’t easily leave. Up until Muses “tHERsday,” it also means a lot of work but in the most fun way, since I am busy organizing the Krewe of Muses parade. After Muses, it’s all fun, with some recovery time mixed in.
Favorite parade: Muses and I watch from a float. There really is no better vantage point to see the parade route and the crowds and it’s just an amazing experience.
Pictures dating back to the 1940s show revelers sitting on A-frame ladders to get a better view of passing floats. Ladders with a wooden seat fastened by four bolts came next. Then someone known as “Mr. Wheeler” arrived on the scene and attached the wheels from his lawn mower to the ladder, making it easy to transport. Ladders are now covered with cushions and rigged with “loot chutes” so paradegoers can quickly stow their beads. (“The Ladders of Mardi Gras”)
The origin of New Orleans’ sweetly-dressed Baby Dolls is somewhat of a mystery – although there is evidence of prostitutes in “Black Storyville” masking as Baby Dolls around 1912. Or maybe one masker started the trend. Regardless, authors Echo Olander and Yoni Goldstein say the Baby Dolls were one of the first women’s street masking groups. “They marched with bravado, contrasting the feminine appearance of a doll with powerful masculine symbols, such as cigars, money and sometimes weapons.” Several factions emerged, differentiated by music and dance styles. (“I Wanna Do That!”)
Dr. Stephen Hales
Rex archivist, Zuthor “Rex: An Illustrated History of the School of Design”
I appreciate the deep historical roots of Carnival. Communities benefit from that kind of continuity, an annual renewal of celebrations with traditions and rhythms that we enjoy together. Mardi Gras brings us together in a special way—lines that sometime divide us tend to fade on the parade route. And the art of Carnival is so important and unique—a beautiful and ephemeral art form that is unique to New Orleans.
Favorite parade: No surprise here–I love the Rex parade, representing a century and a half of tradition and artistry. The imagination and creativity involved in developing themes and float designs and the use of traditional materials and techniques produce a beautiful parade, a counterpoint to the spectacular “superkrewe” parades. I watch the parade from the reviewing stand at the Hotel Intercontinental. It is always a special moment when Rex pauses there to offer a toast to the Queen of Carnival and the Rex court.
Owner, We Dat Chicken
[Endymion] runs right past our location on Canal Street, and we were so exicted by all the customers that came in and maybe had not heard of We Dat before. Not only does it help with exposure, but it’s also so great to see all the people that come out and stand in line for our food. I ride in the truck parades. Mardi Gras day is my favorite day. You get to see so many people in the city. During this time and festival time, it’s great to see people of all backgrounds, no matter race, religion, we all have common ground when we are celebrating.
Favorite parade route meal: I have a tradition that I bring plenty of chicken on the float for Mardi Gras day, and then I go check all the stores after we finish up the parade, and I get a plate to go for myself.
In “The Big Book of King Cake,” author Matt Haines boldly states: “the grandfather of the modern day Louisiana-style king cake” is McKenzie’s cake – a sweetened brioche dough dusted with purple, green, and gold sugar. Henry McKenzie established McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppe on Prytania Street in 1929. Less than a decade later, his former boss bought him out for $83, but he kept Henry as head baker and retained the shop’s name. Over time, McKenzie’s became a 54-store empire. The bakery made their first king cake for a Carnival ball, but continued baking them for decades. At its height, the bakery sold more than 350,000 king cakes a year.
Beans and Babies
Before there was a king cake baby, there was a coveted bean. In ancient Greece, leaders were chosen by tallying votes cast with beans. Ancient pagans believed the bean was magical. But when Christianity made its way through Europe, the bean was considered blessed. The French expression, “Il a trouvé la fève au gâteau!” is used when someone makes a lucky discovery, writes Haines, but the translation, “He has found the bean in the cake!” refers to king cake. In modern-day New Orleans, the woman who receives the bean at the annual ball of the Twelfth Night Revelers is crowned the krewe’s queen. (“The Big Book of King Cake”)
Veteran Event Planner, former King and Captain of the Mystic Krewe of Satyricon, Grand Marshal Gay Easter Parade, New Orleans Pride and Southern Decadence
To me Mardi Gras means tradition. I have so many Mardi Gras traditions that I share with my family, my friends and my co-workers. During the season, different traditions with different groups, but each is special. And the main thing is, each one makes me glad I live in this city. Whether I am catching shoes with my family on Magazine Street for Muses, listening to great bands in the Caesar’s Superdome for the Endymion Extravaganza, or doing the Lundi Gras lunch at Arnaud’s with my friends in costume, I enjoy it all. And tradition goes hand in hand with community. I have been a member of one of the gay Carnival krewes and dressing in costume as part of their tableau for their Bal Masque is exhilarating. What is wonderful about Mardi Gras, is there is always the opportunity every year to make new traditions, because this holiday is truly for everyone!
Favorite parade: Krewe Du Vieux is definitely my favorite parade for many reasons. It is normally the first time of the Carnival season I get to dress in costume, which I love to do, the more outrageous the better. It also feels like a more locals’ parade. I always catch it in the Marigny (and if you do it right, you can see it twice), which becomes quite the scene that night. So many people host house parties in the neighborhood, you spend most of the pre and post parade party hopping. But the parade itself is genius. It is funny, satirical and very naughty. The throws and costumes are inspired and the bands will keep you dancing the entire time.
Musician, Producer, Philanthropist
What does Mardi Gras mean to me? The big thing is to get an early start to make sure you can catch it all. As a kid I would follow some of the Indian tribes through the neighborhood for a few hours, then hit the Zulu parade to try and catch the coconut and to hang out under bridge with some barbecue, some second-lines. To me, that’s Mardi Gras.
Favorite parade: I’ve got to give the shout out for my “Shorty Gras” and the Krewe of Freret parade, and seeing everybody having a good time from my float!