Today is Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday”–a celebration synonymous with New Orleans and King Cake and likely progenitor of the #textsfromlastnight Twitter feed. Born in NOLA, I should be able to regale you with tales of the time I broke the Internet via video footage of my teenage exploits on Bourbon Street. But I cannot because: (1) Do you know me? That never happened, and (2) My grandmothers read this.
In fact, I caught up with my Mawmaw last night to wish her a happy early Mardi Gras and to let her regale me with tales of Mardi Gras celebrations gone by. My mother’s mother, Rita Galjour Niklaus is powdery soft and smells of Borghese and uses interjections like, “Oooh, Lawdy!” without irony or pretense. Below is an excerpt of her animated trip down memory lane.
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It was the 60s, and on Mardi Gras day, only the men would leave the house at 5 a.m. to head down to lower St. Charles Avenue. They’d bring ladders and ice chests and set up camp, and by the time the women and children arrived with picnic lunches and blankets–oooooh, they were up to no good! Your Pawpaw was such a cut-up. It was his favorite day of the year, and he always prepared his costume well in advance. But whatever theme he chose…[sigh]. All he wore on the bottom was a pair of white BVDs. The Lone Ranger? Cowboy hat, black eye mask, and underwear. A giant talking baby doll? Bonnet, pretend pull tab on his back, and underwear. One year, he just sat on the curb on an old porcelain toilet. In his underwear. Oooooh, he made me so mad!
We watched from St. Charles Avenue because it was more family-oriented. The parades got bigger and better every year, and the most beautiful ones were at night time. Some of the floats were four floors high! In later years, Harry Connick, Jr.’s float was particularly fabulous. Blaine Kern, the local artist who created the entrance to the 1984 World’s Fair, designed most of the floats. They would begin with papier-mâché, solidify the sculpture with layers of lacquer, and paint it vibrant colors. Oh, they made everything: shiny white horses, Marilyn Monroe, laughing clowns with pretty hats and big smiles. At night, the flambeaux carriers would march first, carrying flickering lanterns. Each krewe’s float was then led by the captain in a horse-drawn carriage. He was always masked and dressed in purple or something elegant and luxurious. The queen and king would follow next. It was such a spectacle.
If we had a party, I’d always make a big pot of red beans and rice. Lots of juicy sausage and fluffy French bread. It’d be ready and waiting when we came back from the parade, starving! Of course we always had Gambino’s King Cake, too. Theirs had a filling—usually a custard, which was my favorite. Nowadays you can get them with almost anything stuffed inside.
I think my favorite Mardi Gras celebrations were much more recent, though–when your mom and daddy lived on Bonnabel [Boulevard]. It was right on the parade route, so I think all the trees along the street had beads caught in their branches every month of the year. Cindy would just keep inviting people, and the lawn was full of chairs! We’d eat gumbo and your daddy would grill burgers and oooooh we’d have ourselves a time…
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On this day of excess, I invite you to dance in your underwear, love fierce, cry ugly, believing that, “We’re following in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before. We’ll all be reunited on a new and sunlit shore.”
–from “When The Saints Go Marching In”