Next month, on February 9, Mardi Gras takes over New Orleans. If you think it’s just a wild, drunken, bare-breasted party, you’re wrong. Playground friend and NOLA native John Hammond says Mardi Gras is really a family celebration. If you’re thinking of taking the kids to experience it, read John’s A-Z Guide below for all you need to know to celebrate like the locals do:
The silly tourist revelry in the French Quarter tends to get more media coverage, but the annual Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans is really a great big, multi-week city-wide family celebration. Having grown up in New Orleans and still having relatives there, we manage to take the family down for Mardi Gras weekend every couple of years. The thing is, our kids’ experience of Mardi Gras is pretty similar to what mine was 40 years ago. The annual celebration hasn’t been co-opted, commoditized, or commercialized; it’s still a big ol’ party that everyone can enjoy.
This rundown of key points about Mardi Gras and its traditions can serve as a guide for anyone thinking of a visit to the city during Carnival time, focused on considerations that families with kids will have. Ultimately, as the great New Orleans philosopher Professor Longhair put it, “If you go to New Orleans, you oughta go see the Mardi Gras… When you get down there, somebody gonna show what’s Carnival for!”
Here is my A-Z Guide on celebrating Mardi Gras with the family:
A is for Audubon Park: One of two large parks in town, this one is in the Uptown neighborhood facing St. Charles Ave and stretching back to the river. It’s a great spot to take a break from the parades, with playgrounds, a nice walking / jogging trail, and a first-rate zoo that features the city’s only (man-made) hill.
B is for Bacchus: While Rex may be known as the “King” of parades, the Bacchus parade is one of three more recent “superkrewes” (along with Endymion and Orpheus) that roll the three evenings before Mardi Gras and feature A LOT more floats than the more traditional parades. Bacchus is usually led by a ‘celebrity’ king—in recent years those have included John Goodman, Will Farrell, and local demigod Drew Brees. (Not to be confused with Barkus, the annual dogs’ own Mardi Gras parade in the Quarter.)
C is for Coconut: Hand-painted coconuts are the prized handout of the Zulu parade. Several krewes have distinctive throws they give out from the floats, but the Zulu coconut is the prize of all prizes.
D is for Doubloon: The distinctive coins tossed by each parade, stamped with the krewe’s logo and the year. Good tips for getting doubloons are to appeal to the horse-riding parade marshalls, and/or watch for them being thrown from the floats and get ready to stamp when they’re on the ground (and watch those fingers!).
E is for Elks: Elks and Crescent City are known as the “truck” parades, rolling behind Rex on Mardi Gras Day. These are organized by a more diverse and middle-class population than the high New Orleans society that make up most of the traditional krewes – you’ll see trucks sponsored by CYO groups, local firehouses, and of course different Elks chapters. The floats are essentially decorated flatbed trucks – often very creative and humorous – and these parades are LONG, with a few hundred trucks tossing a huge range of plastic toys, stuffed animals, and miscellaneous tchotchkes.
F is for Flambeur: The traditional “flambeau” guys carried torches that originally provided the only light sources for nighttime parades. Nowadays there are street lights, but the flambeur tradition goes on (like many in New Orleans) with a slight modification: the modern flambeurs are now essentially carrying triple torches powered by what look like propane tanks, but they still add an old-fashioned feel to the nighttime parades.
G is for Glass Beads: The bead necklaces thrown from the floats were historically multi-colored glass beads. These apparently phased out in the 60s in favor of cheaper plastic beads, but you can still find some beautiful sets of small glass beads in the funky antiques stores on Magazine St. (and probably in the attic of my mother’s house as well).
H is for House Party: Along with attending the parades themselves, the tradition of open houses held on parade days is a key part of the Mardi Gras experience. If you’re lucky enough to have a local hookup along the parade route, and can connect with your cousin’s contractor, or that guy you knew at school 20 years back visiting his friends from church, they’ll be happy to invite you in for some red beans and a bloody mary. Parties can also be great rest stops for the kids if they need a revival break so take advantage if you can!
I is for Indians: The mysterious tradition in New Orleans black culture of parading and posturing in elaborate Native American dress stretches back into the mid-19th century and continues to thrive, with multiple tribes that a lucky wanderer may encounter on Mardi Gras Day. Viewers of “Treme” got a good introduction to the Mardi Gras Indians’ culture, with the tribe members taking most of the year to create their own amazing costumes by hand. To delve a little deeper into the traditions, check out the documentaries “All On a Mardi Gras Day” or “Always for Pleasure” and the essential album from the Wild Tchoupitoulas.
J is Jazz Fest: Officially known as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Fest is another great cultural event in the city’s annual calendar. (It takes place from April 22 – May 1, 2016 this year) As jaded teenagers who were burned out on parades, we thought of Jazz Fest as “Mardi Gras for locals,” but it’s certainly been discovered by music fans across the world over the past few decades. Held every year at the Fair Grounds during the last weekend in April and the first weekend of May, the festival features a range of stages booking everything from traditional jazz to Cajun to bigger touring rock acts, as well as an indispensible selection of crafts and food booths.
K is for Katrina: 2005’s cataclysmic hurricane and subsequent levee breaks and flooding had profound, long-lasting effects on the life of New Orleans – changing population patterns, exacerbating problems in an already rickety infrastructure, and relocating a number of diverse parade routes to a more central part of town. Still, it’s certainly possible to make a trip to New Orleans these days without noticing any particularly stark reminders of the damage of ten-plus years ago. In most of the neighborhoods that tourists are likely to visit, folks have by and large rebuilt and gotten back to the business of living, raising their families and enjoying life in the Crescent City. Most parades run through the older Uptown, Central Business District, and Downtown areas which were generally spared the more severe destructive effects of the storm. Not to be too rosy about it of course; there are still a number of neighborhoods with large areas lying fallow and unreclaimed.
L is for Ladder: Local parents with little kids will construct or purchase a “Mardi Gras ladder” for them to watch the parades. It’s a “box seat” on top of a ladder from which the kids can see all the action and have a great vantage point for catching beads. If you can find yourself with little ones at one of the aforementioned house parties, you can probably prevail on other parents to give your guys a turn up in the perch.
M is for Masking: Dressing up in costumes, whether silly, elaborate, or thrown-together (ideally, all of the above), is an essential and fun part of Mardi Gras Day. Of course, enjoy your kids while they enjoy being actual kids; it’s likely they’ll hit a point in early double digits where they want no part of such silly fun. Float riders also generally appear masked, due to a longstanding local custom of keeping their identities secret.
N is for Neighborhoods: Spend much time there and you’ll hear the truism, “New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods.” It’s a truism because it’s, you know, true: the character of the city shines through in so many neighborhoods, with different local housing styles, traditions, restaurants, and more to explore.
O is for Offbeat: At some point during your trip, make sure to get out to one (or several) of the city’s many clubs, cafes, and venues for a taste of authentic live New Orleans musical culture. Offbeat is the monthly guide to that music and culture scene, still going strong in print after 25 years.
P is for Parades: This page is a good overview of tips and etiquette for attending parades, which can be summed up as ‘be cool, be friendly, and have fun!’
Q is for Quarter: The French Quarter is, of course, the oldest (and most tourist-ridden) part of the city. You don’t need to take the kids to Bourbon St or Royal St for the silly tourist scene there, but you’ll still want to head down to see the street scene at Jackson Square and get some café au lait and beignets at Café Du Monde.
R is for Restaurants: The high-end places, both traditional and contemporary, may get more press, but the quality of the mid-level restaurants – fantastic neighborhood hangouts like Mandina’s, Casamento’s, Liuzza’s, and so many more – really set the New Orleans dining scene apart. For evening paradegoers, it’s generally possible to get a table before or after at a place where both parents and kids can get a very enjoyable meal.
S is for Streetcar: Not the fastest but certainly the most scenic mode of transport in the city, the iconic St. Charles streetcar line runs from the Carrolton neighborhood uptown down to Canal St. and the edge of the French Quarter. During parades the route is cut short around Napoleon, though if you’re staying further uptown this still works fine to get you down near where the action is.
T is for “Throw Me Something, Mister”: This is the traditional and still-used call for paradegoers appealing to the folks on the floats, in hopes of scoring a booty of beads, plastic cups, doubloons, and various random other items that become exciting treasures for kids in the thrill of the hunt. And speaking of those, T is also for T.S.A.: we discovered one year that a bamboo spear topped with a rubber blade IS acceptable to take on a plane – but only after telling The Lad that he couldn’t take his on, and then of course another kid brought his through the X-ray machine without a problem.
U is for Uptown: The broadly defined “uptown” area covers a wide range of neighborhoods near the river, from the University (Tulane / Loyola) and Audubon Park areas to the edges of the Garden District. Most of the parades running in the city of New Orleans run on some variation of the “uptown” route, which is generally down St. Charles starting around Napoleon Ave., going downtown toward Canal St. Look for details in the paper, assuming it’s still publishing … or on one of the local media’s Parade Tracker apps.
V is for Vieux Carre: The “old square” or “old district” is another name for the French Quarter. Like we said, you’ll likely find a few tourists there, but if you explore a little deeper in, off the beaten path, it’s still a residential neighborhood with funky apartments, beautiful architecture, cool shops and a fascinating ‘old-line bohemian’ local’s culture.
W is for WWOZ: New Orleans’s community radio station ties the local music and culture scene together and provides a steady stream of authentic jazz, R&B, Latin, gospel, Cajun programming and more. The station has an excellent concert listings rundown, and tends to be on in most cool shops and restaurants around town. Hear it at 90.7 FM in town and live online on the web at wwoz.org anytime you want to get in a New Orleanian mood.
X is for ReX: The Krewe of Rex is the granddaddy of parades and New Orleans Mardi Gras organizations. They roll with a grand and traditional parade on Mardi Gras morning, presided over by the “King” of Carnival, a local civic or business leader whose identity is kept secret until the day before. The Rex Ball on Mardi Gras night is still shown on TV every year, and while the pageantry and pomp feels a little silly and anachronistic, you still have to respect their tradition as another unique ingredient of New Orleans culture.
Y is for Yeast: The key ingredient (along with flour, sugar, milk, and more sugar, of course) in the traditional New Orleans delicacy the King Cake. A recent NY Times piece detailed some modernist variations on the sweet staple, though most partygoers, visitors and celebrants are quite, quite happy with the traditional ring cake decorated with purple, green and gold icing. Here is my family’s recipe for you to enjoy:
- ¼ cup butter or margarine
- 1 tsp salt
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 cup milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm
- 1 pack yeast
- ¼ cup warm water
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
- about 4-1/2 cups of all purpose flour
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp vanilla
Place butter, salt and sugar in bowl and lukewarm milk, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt and melt the butter. Soften yeast in water and add, along with beaten egg to milk mixture. Stir in the cinnamon and vanilla, and then stir in 3-1/2 cups of flour, 1 cup at a time. Turn out on floured board and knead lightly with remaining flour for 2 minutes. Place in a bowl and brush with melted butter. Let rise in a warm place for about 2 hours. Punch down and roll out into a cylinder about 18 inches long. Bring ends together and seal making a round circle to resemble a crown. Place on a greased baking pan or cookie sheet. Brush with melted butter and let rise 45 minutes. Bake in 375 oven 20 to 25 minutes until brown. Cool and glaze with a mixture of 1 cup confectionary sugar, 1-2 tsp milk and 1 tsp lemon juice. Use purple, green, and gold dusting sugar or mix up plain sugar with green, gold (yellow), and purple (i.e. red and blue) food coloring to create colored sugars, and sprinkle onto the top of the cake and let glaze dry. Press “baby” into underside of cake and serve.
Z is for Zulu: The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club started up their own predominately African-American group and parade in the early 20th century, in response to the traditional white society’s ownership of Rex and the other old-line krewes. Over the years Zulu has evolved into a powerful institution on its own, and the annual meeting of the Kings of Rex and Zulu on Lundi Gras evening (the night before Mardi Gras) has become a powerful symbolic meeting of two cultures. The Zulu parade kicks off Mardi Gras day itself, rolling early at 8 am before Rex.
In case we haven’t quite made it clear yet, Mardi Gras is a blast – diverse, all-encompassing, a bit exhausting, and lots of fun for families! The city opens up and everyone enjoys the party together, so make a point of going with the family one of these years!
John Hammond is a Montclair resident and dad of two who heads up Marketing and Digital for Missing Piece Group, a Newark-based music marketing and management agency. He can be found dispensing wisdom on cake and music at @juanjamon.