New Orleans may be Bacchanalia on the Bayou, but this year’s Mardi Gras celebration is also tinged with a gritty determination to overcome the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. The good times are rolling in the French Quarter, largely untouched by 2005’s Katrina, but blocks and blocks of homes in surrounding neighborhoods are boarded up.
While artists are creating phantasmagoric floats, graybeard Habitat for Humanity volunteers from around the U.S. are hammering up new $75,000 homes in some neighborhoods and college kids are rehabbing abandoned houses.
I was there on January 6, Twelfth Night, when the Mardi Gras celebration kicked off, starting weeks of balls and parades and ending with the big pre-Lenten Fat Tuesday blast on February 20. At least two dozen parades are scheduled in New Orleans before Mardi Gras Day, plus many more out in Cajun Country. (You can watch the Big Easy parades at home on the Web site mardigrasday.com.)
What’s Mardi Gras Day like? Think Fiesta on major-league steroids, with French ringing in your ears instead of Spanish. It’s Summer Solstice a thousand times crazier; a cast of, well, the whole town and surrounding Cajun Country. It’s tradition, with a capital T. In some of the main “krewes” who parade and party, on the day a girl is born, the proud parents sign her up as a future queen. “Mardi Gras is part of the culture,” as one local put it. When Sue and I visited, the dice were rolling at Harrah’s block-long casino next to its glitzy new hotel a few blocks from the French Quarter. Across the street, in the elegant Windsor Court, a citadel of peace and quiet behind a courtyard wall, Chef Mike Collins, formerly of Santa Barbara’s Bacara Resort & Spa, presided over the most beautiful dining room in town, the New Orleans Grill. (If the crowds get to you, the adjoining Polo Lounge offers a quiet London-bar-ambiance refuge.)
Somehow Collins manages to get Sonoma foie gras and New Orleans gumbo on the same menu. The Windsor is owned by Orient-Express, the same people now spending millions upgrading Santa Barbara’s El Encanto Hotel.
Over at Café du Monde, an open-air institution since the 1860s, people sipped chicory-flavored coffee and nibbled warm, sugary beignets, the French donuts every tourist must munch. On the sidewalk a trumpeter piped out “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and accepted tips. Finding ourselves on narrow Pirates Alley, we spotted Faulkner House Books, where author William Faulkner slept and wrote back in the 1920s when it was a rooming house. Bookshop clerk Joanne Sealy sold me Richard D. White Jr.’s Kingfish, bio of ex-governor/senator Huey Long, the man who yearned to be president but ended up assassinated by a man whose family Huey wronged.
Sealy advised we lunch at Alpine Restaurant, a joint around the corner at 620 Chartres Street. There, a huge bowl of gumbo, swimming with crawfish, shrimp, and sausage, goes for a mere $6 and a local Abita Amber costs $3.50. The tab is far higher at Emeril Lagasse’s three restaurants, all up and running, pricey as ever and highly praised as ever. Legendary Commander’s Palace, opened in 1880 by Emile Commander, also survived Katrina and you can lunch on Chef Tory McPhail’s crawfish tails sautéed with toasted garlic, leeks, mushrooms, local tomatoes, and spiked with cognac. Follow this, of course, with the queen of Creole desserts — bread pudding soufflé.
The Brennan family is big in New Orleans restaurant circles, one wing owning Commander’s Palace. Over at the Palace Café, in a 100-year-old landmark building on Canal Street, owner Dickie Brennan dropped in to talk about how the Palace reopened just five months after Katrina. The place was bustling.
Mardi Gras is a year-long passion. As soon as the last string of beads is tossed from the last Mardi Gras float after someone makes the final traditional cry of “Throw something to me, mister,” legendary Blaine Kern will have crews in his vast Mardi Gras World barns or “dens” across the Mississippi River creating floats for 2008.
Meanwhile, out in Acadiana, the area of southern Louisiana populated by descendants of French-speaking Canadians who fled British rule in the 1700s, the celebration takes on a Cajun Country or “courir de Mardi Gras” flavor. Thousands parade through the countryside costumed and masked, walking, in wagons, or on horseback. “Once you have that mask on you have that anonymity,” one middle-aged woman told me. “You have no inhibitions.”
Out there, the lively, compelling Cajun and Zydeco music is making a strong comeback. At Vermillionville, the Cajun-Creole recreation of Acadiana between 1765 and 1890, a group of young musicians like Cedric Watson and old-timers like famed Hadley J. Castille gave us a taste of the best of Cajun Country music. One of the songs on Castille’s CD, Refait, tells of when, as a child, he ran into Louisiana’s notorious ban against speaking French in schools. “It was strictly enforced,” he said. “The idea was to Americanize us. It was degrading.” Kids found in violation could be forced to wear a dunce cap or a sign that read “I spoke French,” Castille said.
Once when he was overheard tossing a French phrase in the schoolyard, Castille was punished by having to write “I will not speak French” 200 times. The CD includes his song “200 Lines.” Now, he said proudly, there is a movement to teach “emergence” French in school.
Castille, 73, who picked cotton as a child with his sharecropping family, went on to become a famed fiddler and singer/songwriter, and has performed internationally and on movie soundtracks like Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World. His band is called the Sharecroppers.