Twelfth Night in the Big Easy

New Orleans’s Mardi Gras Bash Begins

New_Orleans.jpgNew 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

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

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.

Cajun Country

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

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

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.

Barney Brantingham can be reached at 965-5205 or He
writes a Tuesday and Friday online column at and a Thursday print
column in The Independent.


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