Growing up in Louisiana and not going to Mardi Gras in New Orleans is like watching your neighbor throw a huge party while you stay home and peek through the curtains at the revelry. At least that’s what it felt like for me.
Every year my sister, Sandra, and I got the day off from school and watched the parades roll down Canal Street on the television set in our kitchen. The crowd was thick, and we saw a mass of hands reaching skyward amid cries of “t’row me sumthin’ mistuh” as the king of Rex flung beads and doubloons down from the top of his throne. Everybody seemed happy as they whooped it up for the cameras. Sandra and I would be thinking about what we planned to give up for Lent, which started the next day on Ash Wednesday. We often gave up chocolate, which meant we were gorging ourselves on it while we watched the revelers imbibe in other vices.
But Mardi Gras wasn’t all fun and games. It had a dark side too, like that neighbor’s party turned into a drunken brawl that the cops were called in to shut down. So we didn’t go.
“People get killed at Mardi Gras every year, you know,” said Daddy. “You couldn’t drag me down there if they were passing out hundred dollar bills at those parades.” We lived in the country, just outside of Baton Rouge, in a town called Brusly that was a big enough city for him. New Orleans was a foreign country that he never intended to visit.
One year our cousin Debbie was chosen to ride on a float in a Mardi Gras parade, and she became an instant celebrity in the family. Aunt Margaret staged a parade in her living room afterward, where Debbie reigned as queen of the couch. She and Aunt Margaret threw beads to a whole slough of cousins who held out arms in supplication and yelled, “t’row me some beads.” Legs and arms tangled with groping hands as we desperately scrambled around and picked through strands of gold shag carpet in search of our treasure: real plastic-beaded necklaces from a real Mardi Gras float that had rolled in a real parade down the streets of New Orleans. It was a close as any of us ever got to celebrating Mardi Gras.
When I started college I decided the time had finally come to stop peeking through the curtains and step out to that party going on next door. I lived at home while attending Louisiana State University, and I asked Mama is she wanted to go with me. I knew Daddy wouldn’t go, and I didn’t expect her to go without him, but she must have been longing to join the party too, because she said, “yeah, let’s go see what’s it’s all about.”
“Ya’ll are crazy,” Daddy said. “You better go down there early and leave before dark. And I’m not going down there to drag your asses home if something happens to you.” It was just Daddy’s way of saying he was worried about us, but it didn’t stop us from going anyway.
The sky was clear on the warm Fat Tuesday morning in February when the two of us backed down our gravel drive and pointed my Chevy Chevette East toward New Orleans. Behind the wheel I acted more confident that I felt as I drove for an hour-and-a-half down I-10. But once we hit the outskirts of the city and started seeing gaily decorated floats bound for unknown parades on unknown streets any lingering worries vanished. We had arrived!
We parked near the Superdome and raced towards Canal Street, where we could hear the low hum of the party going on. Coming onto Canal we found it: a multitude packed together on sidewalks and in the neutral ground, as the median is called in New Orleans, while the Zulu parade lumbered it’s way toward the Mississippi River.
Mama and I pushed into the throng and raised our voices and our hands along with everyone else, “t’row me sumthin mistah!” We fought for black Zulu beads and plastic cups and nylon panties. We learned to step on any coin-shaped doubloons that hit the ground before reaching to pick them up, so someone else didn’t step on our fingers. Zulu’s king waved regally from his throne and tossed gold coconuts into the sea of hands. As the last float faded away, the crowd swept us into the French Quarter and onto Bourbon Street, where we found a whole different kind of show.
Mama got her camera out and started snapping pictures of people in elaborate costumes when Yoda sidled up to her and said, “mmm, the force is strong with this one. Take my picture she will.”
The Jolly Green Giant put his arm around me. ”Hey, sugar, would you like to hold my cucumber? It’s big and it’s hard.” People drank alcohol from plastic cups and cops strolled slowly down the street looking for pick pockets, drunks passed out on sidewalks and men dropping their pants for beads. Revelers on balconies dangled beads to women below, calling down “show me your tits” and waiting for a shirt to go up before dropping the prize. The cops didn’t haul the women away.
Mama and I soaked it all up: dancers on the balconies of gay bars, groups with themed costumes posing for pictures, vendors hawking beer, hot dogs and t-shirts. The day passed in a blur, and like Cinderellas heading for their pumpkin we stumbled back to our car around four in the afternoon, heeding Daddy’s admonition to get out before dark. We were exhausted, and it was a quiet drive home.
“I see ya’ll made it back,” was all Daddy said when we walked into the house loaded down with beads and full of stories he didn’t want to hear.
“Yeah, and I think we’ll be going back to Mardi Gras next year,” said Mama.
Daddy never did make it to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But Mama and I went every year after that until I moved away to Portland. We loved it each time we went, but it was never quite as good as that first year.
Since I moved up North, I’ve only been back for Mardi Gras twice; February just isn’t a good time to travel, especially if you have kids in school. But I decorate my house in beads and masks and make a king cake with a plastic baby Jesus tucked inside to celebrate. We didn’t eat king cakes while I was growing up, and most of the ones I’ve had over the years are dry and tasteless. It took me a while to find a good recipe to make my own, but everyone seems to like the one below.
(Makes two cakes)
- 1 envelope dry yeast
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 cup butter
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 whole eggs
- 4 cups (or more) unbleached flour
- 1/2 cup + 1 tsp. sugar
Mix yeast with warm water and 1 tsp. sugar and 1 tsp. flour. Bring milk to a boil then stir in butter and sugar. Pour into a large bowl and mix. Once mix is lukewarm beat in egg yolks, whole eggs, and yeast mixture. Beat in approximately 2 cups of flour until dough is fairly smooth, then add enough flour to make a soft dough you can form into a ball. Knead by hand until smooth and elastic. Lightly oil a bowl, turn dough once or twice to coat, cover with a cloth and leave in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 1-1/2 – 2 hours. Pat down cover with damp towel and refrigerate overnight. Remove dough from fridge. Divide in half. Shape each half into a long sausage shape. Roll dough into a 30″x9″ rectangle as thin as a pie crust. Let dough rest while you make the filling.
- 16 oz. cream cheese
- 1/2 cup confectioners sugar
- 4 Tblsp. flour
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 tsp. vanilla
Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. Divide filling in half and place each half in a one inch strip down the length of each dough shape. Fold one end of the dough over the filling and onto the other side. Crimp at ends so filling won’t come out. Shape dough into rings, place each on a separate cookie sheet or jelly roll pan and let stand 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350. Brush with egg wash and cut deep vents into cake. Bake for 20 – 35 minutes until risen and golden.
- 1-1/2 cups confectioners sugar
- 2-1/2 Tblsp. milk
- 1/4 tsp. vanilla
Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. Once cake has cooled spread on icing. Sprinkle colored sugar chrystals of purple, green and gold over the icing before it hardens. (You can buy colored sugar or make it yourself by placing ½ cup of regular sugar in a zip lock bag and adding one drop of food coloring at a time until you get the color you desire. For purple mix equal parts of red and blue.)