Friday, February 28, 2014

MARDI GRAS: NOT JUST FOR WILD DRUNKEN STREET PERFORMERS by Alana Lorens



Please welcome Alana to the Roses today for a fun post about one of my favorite cities - New Orleans.

Back in 1998, I decided to brave the tradition of Mardi Gras as a single mother with two daughters. My former co-worker and journalist friend Hank Henley lived in NOLA with his lovely wife, who was a college professor, and they’d invited us to experience the carnival from their home, assuring me it could be a family affair.

We went ten days before the actual day of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, because visitors don’t usually wait till then for the fun—Fat Tuesday is actually the end of the event. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, when all repent their sins and perhaps fast and pray is the day after Mardi Gras proper. So we wanted to experience all those days adding up to that last Tuesday, those days when all the fun takes place!

By going early, we were able to tour the other sights of the city, the Aquarium of the Americas, and the French Quarter before the real crush of people arrived. We found many beautiful buildings, wrought iron art, and the sounds of jazz playing everywhere, even out in the streets, as we walked by.

New Orleans begins gearing up long before Fat Tuesday, the Krewes building their floats and decorating them with flowers and art, huge papier mache heads and more. This is a tradition that goes back 200 years, when the secret charitable societies paraded, masked, through the streets, even at night, as flambeaux lit their way. The societies adopted three colors as their symbols—purple, for justice, gold for power, and green for faith. Even today, when you travel a parade route, you’ll see those colors everywhere, and many of the souvenirs will be decorated with them as well.

The societies, or Krewes, are these days made up of local social and business persons, who mask and ride in the floats, tossing “throws” of all sorts to those along the parade routes.  Some throws are simple plastic beads, some are “geaux” cups marked with that year’s theme of the Krewe, others are more expensive and elaborate beads, perhaps with embedded LED lights.  It’s considered lucky to catch these special throws, the Zulu coconut perhaps the most valuable of all. (And no, you don’t have to take off your shirt to get any of these at all, as I found on my visit to the Crescent City several years ago. On the other hand, some people take the opportunity as a chance to exercise their inner stripper. What happens in New Orleans….often ends up on someone’s Twitter feed. What can I say?)

In the Garden District, where we stayed, it was definitely family oriented. Families camp out for the day on the “neutral ground,” the grassy area between the streetcar tracks along St. Charles, and bring coolers and picnics ranging from PB&J to fancy wine and cheese trays. The kids are specially treated, sitting high atop ladders so they get a great view, stay corralled and their parents don’t have to worry about them being trampled. My daughter got some of her best beads this way!

Krewes bear such exotic names as Proteus, Bacchus, Endymion, Le Krewe D’Etat and the Knights of Babylon. But the premier parade is that of Rex, or King, and the King of Carnival rides at the head of Rex. His identity is kept secret until the final night, when he leads the dances at the Rex ball. He is a local businessman, who is selected by the community for his charitable and philanthropic work.

Unlike the police officer who thought it was fine to stop and give my teenaged daughter wrapped edible underwear. Still haven’t figured that one out.)

Parades aren’t the only thing to do at Mardi Gras, of course. It is de rigeur to stop by CafĂ© Du Monde for some powdered sugar-covered beignets and the New Orleans coffee laced with chicory. The Aquarium of the Americas, right on the river, has a wonderful display of local fish and history as well as the more exotic. Museums like Mardi Gras World, across the Mississippi in Algiers, where so many of the floats are constructed, and the Voodoo Museum in the French Quarter, where another side of the dark history of New Orleans can be explored.

Whenever you’re in New Orleans, one of the best activities is experiencing their wonderful food. With oysters and seafood fresh from the Gulf, you can expect many delicious dishes to be served, whether you choose Cajun (more countrified) or Creole (definitely citified). Red beans and rice are standard fare, rib-sticking food before your nights of carousing. Most dishes are made with the basics of the Holy Trinity of staples-- chopped celery, bell peppers and onion. Whether it’s jambalaya, beans or shrimp creole, you’re likely to find them.

And you can’t finish your meal without digging into a king cake. Decorated with the three Mardi Gras colors, the cake can be plain grocery-store bakery fare, or filled and iced at an upper-class bakery, but the important detail is always the small plastic baby inside. When the cake is served, whoever finds the baby will have good luck for the coming year. The lucky recipient may also be expected to bake the King Cake or throw the Mardi Gras party for the next year.

We ate well, experienced the exotic settings well outside our usual small-town comfort zone, and had a lovely time. The experience is reflected in my latest novel, VOODOO DREAMS: 

When her big trial goes bad, corporate attorney Brianna Ward can't wait to get out of Pittsburgh. The Big Easy seems like the perfect place to rest, relax, and forget about the legal business. Too bad an obnoxious--but handsome--lawyer from a rival firm is checking into the same bed and breakfast.

Attorney Evan Farrell has Mardi Gras vacation plans too. When he encounters fiery and attractive Brianna, however, he puts the Bourbon Street party on hold. He'd much rather devote himself to her--especially when a mysterious riddle appears in her bag, seeming to threaten danger.

Strangely compelled to follow the riddle's clues, Brianna is pulled deeper into the twisted schemes of a voodoo priest bent on revenge. To escape his poisonous web, she must work with Evan to solve the curse. But is the growing love they feel for each other real? Or just a voodoo dream?

If you’re ready to visit this magical and dangerous land, check out VOODOO DREAMS on Amazon and at the Wild Rose Press site. For updates and special offers, visit my website. And laissez les bon temps roulez!

8 comments:

Jannine Gallant said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful Mardi Gras experience! Best of luck with you latest release.

lyndialexander said...

Thanks for having me! This was pre-Katrina, of course, but staying in the Garden District was lovely, and our hosts were very savvy about when to do what--so we avoided most of the crowds, at least the rowdy ones, and had a great time.

Alana

Alicia Dean said...

Hi Alana (it's your editor, Ally, here :)) Thank you for painting such a vivid picture of Mardi Gras. I was in New Orleans pre-Katrina too (the May before Katrina hit, actually), and I found it fascinating and SO much fun. I've never been to Mardi Gras, though. Best of luck on your wonderful book!!!

Jamie Saloff said...

Alana! I can't believe you missed Willie Mae's Scotch House (for the best fried chicken ever). Oh, darn, now you'll just have to go back and do it all again. (Wouldn't that be a shame?)

lyndialexander said...

Ally!! So exciting to "see" you...I hope to have another story for you by the end of summer. :)

Jamie...I'm always up for an adventure. Maybe next year!

Alana

Margo Hoornstra said...

Welcome. Hope you have great success with the book. I was in New Orleans long ago as a child. Still remember its beauty.

Ashantay said...

Your experience sounds delightful! Looking forward to reading your book.

Leah St. James said...

Hi, Alana - Great info about NOLA! Definitely a city I'd like to visit some day. Best of luck with Voodoo Dreams.