It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he as seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans. --Mark Twain
Before I begin, it must be acknowledged that there is no way that any blog post or book or video can provide a complete explanation for all of the aspects of Carnival. This celebration belongs to all New Orleanians. For some, it is a religious event. For others, it's purely secular. Some people celebrate it with their family. Lots of people visit here alone, hoping that their family back home never finds out how hard they partied--and all of that is okay! There is no right or wrong way to celebrate Carnival. This means that no description of Carnival will be the same as someone else's. My series is geared towards explaining a bit about Carnival to those who have never experienced it. Someone who is intimately involved with one of the groups associated with Carnival might look at what I've written and feel that I have glossed over or omitted a lot of details and I readily admit that this is true. The reason is that each aspect of Carnival could stand alone as a topic worthy of its own book. However, I had to draw the line somewhere but I hope I at least covered the basics.
There is no food on the face of this planet can compare to King Cake if you ask me. For those who are unfamiliar with it--and that's basically anyone outside of Louisiana--this ring-shaped cake is one of the definitive elements of the Carnival season. Everyone I know keeps at least one king cake in the house during this period. It symbolizes the travels of the three (probably Zoroastrian) "magi" mentioned in the Bible's account of the events surrounding Jesus birth. A traditional king cake is about the consistency of a cinnamon roll. It's formed into a circle and baked and then topped with green, purple, and gold colored icing. There are many recipe variations that are commonly created today. My personal favorite is the Praline Cream Cheese king cake where the mixture is added to the middle of the dough and then cooked inside of it.
Besides its shape, king cakes also have another distinctive feature and that's the "king cake baby". After the it is baked but before the icing is added, a tiny baby figurine (usually plastic but traditionally silver) is pushed into the cake. King cakes are often served at office or classroom parties or other social events associated with Mardi Gras. The host of the party slices the cake into equal-sized wedges and each person selects their own piece of. After every piece is distributed, all in attendance may begin eating. Everyone nibbles their piece quite gingerly lest they end up with a very painful toothache from sinking their teeth into a piece of cake containing the king cake baby.
The baby symbolizes the christ child that the magi searched for after seeing the celestial phenomena that, according to their religion, signaled the birth of a king. If you do end up with the slice that contains the king cake baby, it's viewed as a sign that you'll have good luck for the next year. It also means that you have the responsibility of supplying the next day's cake. This ensures that there will be a series of parties all the way through Mardi Gras.
The short definition is that these are structures built on top of eighteen-wheeler truck beds, pulled by heavy-duty tractors, and ridden by members of private Carnival organizations. That, however, doesn't truly explain the magnificence of these vehicles. Even though truck beds serve as the base, you can hardly tell this because each one is completely covered with decorations designed around a specific theme. In turn, each floats' theme is in keeping with the overall theme for that the organization has chosen for that year. In order to truly understand what these floats are like, you have to see them for yourselves. All of the pictures that I've linked to taken from the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club's floats. They are the most popular and anticipated of all the floats on Mardi Gras.
Beads & Doubloons:
In other cities, floats are mainly just something that people come out to look at but in New Orleans, it is an interactive experience. The riders on the floats all provide their own "throws". Throws are basically trinkets that they throw out to the parade-goers as the floats ride down the streets with their music blasting. The most common of all throws are the infamous Mardi gras beads. These range from plain purple, green, or gold metallic-colored beads to elaborately-designed necklaces that may light up or feature the name of the organization it came from or feature unusual beads in the shape of every single (sometimes risque) object imaginable.
Another popular throw is the doubloon. Doubloons are metallic-colored "coins" tossed out to the crowds. Some doubloons are stamped with the year they were thrown and/or the organization that was throwing them.
The most coveted of all throws is the "golden nugget" used exclusively by the members of the Zulu organization. Each member is responsible for the design of his/her nuggets. The golden nugget is a coconut seed that's had its rough, hairy exterior shaved smooth. It's then drained and dried before being painted in one or both of the Zulu Club's signature colors (black and gold). The exterior of the coconut is then designed according to whatever the particular rider's whims may be that year. Some people produce a variety of designs for their coconuts each year. The coconuts are commonly decorated with purple, green, or gold glitter, painted with the Zulu name and the year it was produced, and others feature some variation of Zulu's signature blackface design. If you are really lucky--I'm talking about winning the Louisiana Jackpot kind of lucky--you may even get your hands on a coconut that has been carved into the shape of an animal or human face. Here is a picture of one of these very rare coconuts: 2006 monkey-shaped Zulu coconut.
The German's step-father was a member of Zulu and his mother used to spend weeks decorating their coconuts non-stop. During Carnival, the Zulu organization holds several different contests and best (designed) coconuts is one of them. The German's mother was the winner of the coconut contest a few years ago.
As you know, I come from a musical background, all of it based on New Orleans culture. For me, Carnival is also a time where I can see all of my favorite musician friends who've moved away from New Orleans come back to join in the celebration and playing gigs all around the city.
Zydeco is the quintessential Carnival music. Since New Orleans is my home, I've focused on the experience in this area but Carnival is so much more than just a New Orleanian celebration. Zydeco is the common factor between all of the different sub-cultural Carnival traditions in southeastern Louisiana. In "Uptown" (New Orleans) around Carrolton Ave., Downtown in the Vieux Carre, in the "Lower Nine" (9th Ward), down in "The Parish" (St. Bernard), "Across The River" (Algiers), in Lafayette, and down in the swamps of Des Allemands and Point Coupee Parish, EVERYBODY will be listening to these ubiquitous zydeco songs during Carnival. Out in the more rural, swampy parts of the state, it's often referred to as "swamp pop" but regardless of what they call it in your neck o' the woods, if you were brought up here, you'll have learned to love it by the time you're an adult.
There are certain songs that must get mentioned here because they are practically the official soundtrack to the Carnival celebration.
Carnival Time--It's the INDISPUTABLE Carnival anthem.
Mardi Gras Mambo--Local radio stations start playing this song as soon as Christmas ends.
Iko, Iko--This song is about the Mardi Gras Indians.
Walkin' To New Orleans--My favorite rendition is by the group "Buckwheat Zydeco".
Big Mamou--Wayne Toups has a classic version of this very funny song about a woman.
Hey Pocky Way--Everybody here knows the lyrics but almost no one knows its meaning.
Even if you don't follow any other link in this post, please check out this link to a page featuring samples of some of these songs: Mardi Gras Classics
Next Post: The People Behind The Party