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St. Louis Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Sudu Upadhyay.

For people of New Orleans, Mardi Gras is more than just eating king cake and watching parades. It is a centuries-old “last hurrah” before Lent where people can indulge in good food and parties. It is a time for family and friends to gather and take part in the deep culture that Mardi Gras gives to New Orleans. Mardi Gras has something for everyone and it is a great way to celebrate the city and all it has to offer. As Katy Reckdahl, a long-time New Orleans reporter said, “ I think it brings everybody together in a way that very few other things do.”

Luckily for us, our class trip to New Orleans landed just when Mardi Gras season was starting. This meant we were able to go to the Twelfth Night Parade, eat king cake and learn more about what this special season means to the city of New Orleans.

THE TWELFTH NIGHT PARADE

The first Twelfth Night Parade in New Orleans was in 1870 when the Twelfth Night Revelers brought their celebrations over from England and began a new tradition for the city of New Orleans. They brought out the first king cake that was formerly pieces of bread to be handed out to the men of the town. The man who got the piece of bread with a silver bean inside was to be the next king. But this tradition changed in New Orleans in 1870, and a king cake was made to be given to all of the women in attendance. Nowadays, the Twelfth Night Parade is the first day anyone is officially allowed to eat king cake, and bakeries from all over make their own special recipes. On this night, the krewe of Joan of Arc parades around the French Quarter to celebrate her birthday and officially welcome the beginning of Mardi Gras. Special gifts are handed out to the crowds from each krewe.

The start of the Twelfth Night Parade. Photo courtesy of Abby Linney.

While all of us had seen what Mardi Gras was like from videos or friend’s pictures, we had never been in New Orleans to celebrate ourselves. We were so excited to get to attend the parade that kicks off one of the most anticipated seasons of the year. After finally landing a prime spot by the St. Louis Cathedral, we patiently anticipated the Twelfth Night Parade and we were not disappointed. While this parade is much smaller than the Mardi Gras parades out-of-towners imagine, it was even more special because we got to experience it with locals. Those participating in the parade were dressed up in so many different costumes and handing out an assortment of goodies — at the end of the night we even had a clementine in our collection! Getting to experience such an important parade first-hand was so much fun and left us wanting to return for Mardi Gras in February.

Our goodies from the parade. Photo courtesy of Sydney Nutt.

KREWES

Krewes are also a big part of Mardi Gras and the Twelfth Night Parade. These are groups of people also known as carnival clubs who host parties for friends and family to watch the parades together or to have their own parade. Each krewe has their own special history and unique theme. One of the most famous krewes, Krewe of Muses, is an all-female group that was founded in 2000 and is known for throwing their creatively decorated shoes. For Roahen, she got to experience first hand what riding in the Muses float was like when she decided to become a substitute for someone in the krewe. “I bought all these throws and I made all these shoes,” Roahen said. While riding on a float is certainly an incredible experience, the day is not a short one. Riders must arrive hours early to get situated on the float and the whole experience lasts about six hours. Members of the Muses must also spend time creating their shoes. “The making of the shoes was super fun… just tons of glitter and glue gun… like 70 hours making shoes,” Roahen said. One thing many people look forward to while attending Mardi Gras parades are catching beads or as they are known in New Orleans, “throws”. While it is exciting to catch anything thrown from a float, certain throws are more special than others. Beads are the most basic items you can catch, but items range from stuffed animals to doubloons to cups. Catching anything is certainly fun, but there is a “hierarchy of desirability for the throws,” according to Roahen. “Just a string of beads is cool, like you caught something free and shiny, but it gets more exciting the more specific and unique the throws become,” Roahen said.

KING CAKE

There are several bakeries in the city that have always made a special king cake recipe, and the commercializing of these cakes began in the 1930s. The ritual of the silver bean was replaced in the 1960s with a small babydoll by Haydel’s Bakery, which is one of the most popular places to get a king cake during Mardi Gras season. A New Orleans local, Sara Roahen, describes her favorite place to get a king cake, a bakery called O’Delice: “There is a lot of cinnamon in it. They work cinnamon into the dough, like it’s not just an afterthought. A layer of of the dough is reddish-brown inside.” Roahen says this is where she gets king cakes that she sends to people because they are buttery and sweet, but not too sweet, and they last a long time. “A lot of king cakes, even ones I like, are just people trying to make money,” Roahen says, critiquing the commercializing of the king cake, and how in some cases it is better to just make your own even though it takes a lot of time and ingredients.

Photo courtesy of Allie Kmec.

Roahen’s description of O’Delice’s king cake left our mouths watering and while we were Uptown the next day, we couldn’t help but ask Professor Joyce to make a pit stop at the small bakery to see if this cake lived up to hype, and it definitely did! The description was spot on — the cake was super moist and had the thickest layers of cinnamon twisted inside. While it may not be our most shining moment of the trip, this king cake was so good we finished more than half of it that same day.

Photo courtesy of Allie Kmec.

HOMECOMING

In 2005, a natural disaster occurred that left New Orleans in ruins. Hurricane Katrina was devastating to the town and all of it’s citizens. Mardi Gras before Katrina was different than it was the year immediately after, and it is still different to this day. Katy Reckdahl, a New Orleans local who was able to come back after the hurricane says “I think Mardi Gras is always a time when people get together to see old friends. The years right after Katrina were big because people were still displaced, so it was a big homecoming time.” She says that Mardi Gras has gotten even bigger since Katrina because several people were unable to move back to their home, so they came back to celebrate the Mardi Gras season with friends and family who were able to return. “It used to be a neighborhood, family thing, it always has been, but now there are more people coming home from Texas or Georgia. You’re now seeing a lot of out of state license plates that you didn’t used to see,” says Reckdahl. The people who have moved to New Orleans for the first time after Katrina have even started their own new krewes.

While Mardi Gras is a huge family event for those who call New Orleans home, it seems to be the trend that those outside of Louisiana don’t see it the same way. Instead, many tourists see it as an opportunity to drink, catch beads and party with friends. For those who live in New Orleans it is more than that. When asked about how the perception is different between tourists and locals, Reckdahl says “I think it’s really misunderstood, like, when I have people who visit during Mardi Gras they are surprised at how mellow it is and how it’s more like a neighborhood party.” After talking with many people who call New Orleans home, we began to understand how much it is about family and tradition. “It feels like really special that you get to be in the streets of your city with literally everyone that lives here… You can walk from one end of the city to another and it feels safe and it makes total sense. That’s a special feeling,” said Roahen.

Information courtesy of: http://gonola.com/2016/01/03/nola-history-twelfth-night.html