Missing New Orleans
To paraphrase Creighton Bernette in the TV series Treme, it may be just another gray, sorry-assed Tuesday where you are, but it’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And, on most Fat Tuesdays I’d be there, but not this year. I’m not sure what I’ll do on March 8, other than try not to think about what I’m missing and missing it I will.
Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans
is the unofficial anthem of New Orleans and the lyrics suggest that the only thing one can miss more than the city is one’s true love. Unfortunately, my true love is New Orleans at Mardi Gras. As so often is the case with what we treasure most, it’s something I stumbled upon serendipitously.
The first time I saw New Orleans was more than thirty-six years ago and the week before Mardi Gras and my twenty-seventh birthday. I worked in advertising back then and was on a business trip. Surviving a bumpy night flight from Memphis, I left the airport without any special expectations, just grateful to be on firm ground. Driving my rental car down I-10, except for the eerie fog, it was just another freeway in just another town. Up ahead, a green sign suddenly materialized: “Vieux Carré.” (Hertz had warned me that this was where I got off.) Down the exit ramp I spiraled, crossing Rampart Street into another world: the Vieux Carré. It means “old square” in French, but is better known as the French Quarter.
Out of inky shadows, old buildings with lacy iron balconies crept forth like ghosts in purple, green and gold shrouds rising from the grave. I crossed Bourbon Street, a neon-lit river of humanity—more a carnival midway than a thoroughfare. I opened the car window and the air was thick and gentle, exotic yet at the same time familiar: the perfume of food cooking, the salty smell of the Gulf, and the musk of mildew and decay. The noise assaulted me, incessant yet at the same time intoxicating: laughter, distant river boat whistles, the bark of pitchmen, and music everywhere. New Orleans dished up a sensual gumbo and I’d yet to set foot in any of its celebrated restaurants.
During the days that followed it was breakfast at Brennan’s
and dinner at Antoine’s
. Having to stand in line at Galatoire’s
only made the place more captivating, once admitted into the venerable inter-sanctum and presented a menu that hadn’t changed in almost a century. Food and I have a serious relationship, one consummated long before I ever came here, but one never as satiated anywhere else.
I walked through the French Quarter, investigating every nook and cranny, only to return again and discover something I’d somehow overlooked. I fantasized about the secrets that hid behind rusting gates in crumbling brick walls. How could I not fall in love with a city whose streets are named Mystery, Desire and Tchoupitoulas?
I also fell in love with Carnival and Mardi Gras, when realty puts on a mask and dreams take on flesh. It’s a season to have fun, laugh and scorn death. Every day is another reason to have a parade and gaudy strands of plastic are worth their weight in gold.
Carnival in New Orleans is as much a contradiction as is the city itself—vulgar and sleazy on the one hand; aristocratic and sybaritic on the other. It’s like two trains, sometime running on parallel tracks, sometime on tracks that intersect: public debauchery and gratuitous nudity on Bourbon Street, exclusive balls with elaborate costumes at the Municipal Auditorium and endless parades anticipated by all throughout the city. Like a locomotive, its starts slowly and gradually gains speed, rushing to its final destination: Mardi Gras.
Incorrectly, “Carnival” and “Mardi Gras” are often used interchangeably. In New Orleans, Carnival always begins on January 6, Twelfth Night. It’s the season leading up to its one day culmination, Mardi Gras. Since it’s always the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and forty-seven days prior to Easter, the length of the Carnival season and the date of Mardi Gras changes from year to year—this year’s date of March 8 is the latest in 150 years! Regardless, it’s New Orleans’ day of days and a state holiday in Louisiana. For me it is as much a state of mind as a date on the calendar.
I’m not sure what I’ll do to celebrate Mardi Gras this year—probably more remembering than celebrating. I’m sure I’ll make some jambalaya or gumbo and have a bloody mary or two. I’ll probably watch again the first series of Treme—Mardi Gras is central to its theme.
There are a lot of places in town where you can go to try and capture the Mardi Gras spirit, but it’s never works for me. Mardi Gras is much more than a party, quintessentially New Orleans and all about me.
Some local bars and restaurants celebrating Fat Tuesday:
Limited New Orleans-style menu and a live band. Enter by the back door after 4 p.m. No reservations.
Mardi Gras buffet and music by Impact of Brass
Mardi Gras party with beads, go-go boys and buffet starts at 9 p.m. Pre-Mardi Gras party from 6 until 9 p.m. benefits OutReach
“Beer, Beads and Boobs” plus Cajun food and live entertainment. Party starts at noon (a good sign).
All-you-can-eat buffet and live entertainment.
All locations have food specials, bock beer and hurricanes. Downtown: “blessing on the bock”, Mama Digdown’s Brass Band
and crawfish boil.
Dinner specials and Johnny Chimes & the King Creole Band
Beads and doubloons
My Favorite Bloody Mary Mix
80 ounces (2 quarts and 1 pint) tomato juice
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons (or to taste) prepared horseradish
3 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 ¼ teaspoons (or to taste) Tabasco
2 ½ teaspoons celery salt
1½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pickled green beans, okra, gherkins, gherkins, etc.
Pimento stuffed olives
Celery heart stalks
Lemon or lime slices
In a blender combine about 2 cups of the tomato juice with the lemon juice, lime juice, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and Tabasco and process until smooth. Transfer to a glass pitcher and add celery salt and black pepper. Taste and correct seasonings taste. Refrigerate covered until thoroughly chilled (at least 2 hours or overnight).
When ready to serve, fill each glass with ice. Add 1 ounce of vodka to each glass, and then fill the glass with the bloody mary mix. Stir well, and garnish each glass.