Many years ago, in junior high in Dallas, my history teacher asked why a classmate was absent.
“She’s at Mardi Gras,” another student said.
“Well, that’s not an excused absence.”
“Uh, yeah it is,” the student said. “It’s for religious reasons! She’s… Mardi Grasdian."
I didn’t understand Mardi Gras before I lived in New Orleans. The king cakes I’d tried were unimpressive, and the rest of it had a “Girls Gone Wild” feel. It didn’t help that my only pre-New Orleans Mardi Gras experience was during my freshmen year at college in St. Louis (home of the second biggest Mardi Gras in the U.S.), where it was freezing and I saw breasts. Yes, those are my two take-aways. There was also a parade.
And then, in 2006, I moved to New Orleans to work with the St. Bernard Project and had my first New Orleans Mardi Gras. As the (volunteer) volunteer coordinator, I had a second job waiting tables. The restaurant was on Bourbon Street, and everyone worked the five days leading up to Fat Tuesday. When New Orleans journalist Chris Rose says, "Mardi Gras is not a parade. Mardi Gras is not girls flashing on French Quarter balconies. Mardi Gras is not an alcoholic binge,” that is true, unless you’re working in the French Quarter with the tourists (you should read that column in full. Also, to get a sense of the mess of Katrina, you should read Rose’s 1 Dead in Attic. I’ve just finally bought it.)
Drunks and rowdiness and waiting tables and all, I still loved it. I loved it because it was more than one parade on one day. It was a whole new world of my 60-year-old landlady-housemate and her costume trunk; it was Mardi Gras decorations popping up weeks before that big Tuesday, on pristine houses in the Garden District and on FEMA trailers in St. Bernard; it was learning about krewes and Mardi Gras ladders and Zulu coconuts and buying lots of king cakes because actually, they are delicious. Just read the Chris Rose column. That’s about it.
I would like to go back and do Mardi Gras properly. I would also like to go to everyone else’s Mardi Gras/Carnaval/Fasnacht/Fasching. I have been missing Mardi Gras since 2008 and trying to create some Mardi Gras spirit wherever I am. Last year, we stumbled on a parade in Galveston, Texas, which was a pleasant surprise. We also went to a crawfish boil at Selena’s in Louisville.
This year, to brighten up the New England winterscape, I made my first king cake and listened to a Spotify Mardi Gras playlist. (This is the recipe I used.) Today, like every year, I am wearing my Mardi Gras-colored tie of beads. These are sad substitutes — there’s not even a baby in the cake. Yet as an aspiring Mardi Grasdian, the least I can do is remind you that it’s not just any Tuesday.
Happy Mardi Gras, friends. Keep your shirts on. They throw the beads anyway.