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This article is dedicated to the strong spirit of survival found in Louisiana. Just around ten years ago, Louisiana was struck with unbelievable devastation. On August 29, 2005, Katrina and the resultant flooding crippled New Orleans and the surrounding parishes. It was followed by Hurricane Rita just a month later on September 24. Rita struck an already reeling state a second crippling blow. Yet today, Louisiana has bounced back. It may never be the same again but it is once more a place to visit and marvel at the history, culture, food and especially the spirit of its diverse population that make is a truly unique place.

 

Traveling in the United States, Louisiana is the closest you can come to visiting a foreign country. So much of their food, culture and heritage is found only in Louisiana.

Louisiana is the only state that has parishes not counties. Reason being that the strongly embedded French and Spanish culture that was in place when the U.S, acquired the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803.

 


While at first blush you might say, "The first Mardi Gras in this country was held in  Mobile." That's true but remember Mobile was part of the original Louisiana purchase.

Most cities and even small town in Louisiana celebrate Mardi Gras but the principal celebrations are found in New Orleans, Lake Charles, Shreveport, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Houma

New Orleans naturally is the first place that comes to mind when anyone says "Mardi Gras." The Crescent City is the epicenter of the Mardi Gras explosion. If you include neighboring  parishes of Jefferson, Saint Bernard and Saint Tammany, the New Orleans area hosts over 50 parades. Most of which also have a ball. (Pun intended.)

Only at Mardi Gras in New Orleans will you find strawmen (& women) sharing Bourbon Street
with a pair of Gladiators and Uncle Sam in the background smoking a cigarette.

Until 1968, balls were high society and upper crust affairs. The Krewe of Bacchus changed all that when Owen Brennan of Brennan's Restaurant and a few businessmen broke with tradition.  They revitalized an idea  Owen's father had tried with little  success in 1949 and plotted a krewe that would not only allow outsiders at the ball but would have an outsider celebrity king for a Sunday night parade with super floats that would be bigger and more elaborate than any other krewe.  Ball goers would purchase a ticket rather than wait in vain for an invitation.

The first Bacchus Parade hit the streets on Sunday, February 16, 1969 with celebrity king, Danny Kaye. The krewe today has over 1,400 members and 33 animated super-floats.

Since then two other super float krewes have emerged using a similar plan. The Krewe of Endymion provides a post parade event with top name entertainers so large it fills the Superdome to overflowing. The other super krewe, the Krewe of Orpheus has a more formal black-tie for its ball.

The Zulu Parade is an distinctly New Orleans tradition. Begun in the early 1900s, it is an African American krewe that takes pride in their heritage. Originally, the krewe was somewhat self-mocking, almost like a minstrel show. Their first kings wore “lard can” crown and “banana stalk” scepters. Their throws were somewhat different too. They threw coconuts however lawsuits claiming injury from the coconuts proliferated. In 1987, their insurance company refused the Krewe of Zulu coverage. That year they had to suspend their normal throws and content themselves with just beads and doubloons. The following year they persuaded the  Louisiana Legislature to pass what was known as the “Coconut Bill,” exempting coconuts as a cause of injuries. That might seem strange if you are not from Louisiana but then-governor Edwards (who was never amiss to forcing the law to fit his desires as you will learn later) signed the bill into law.

The Krewe of Zulu tossing our throws

The Mystic Krewe of Barkus began over a dog complaint. In 1992 Thomas Wood  attended a meeting at a local bar. He brought his dog, Jo Jo McWood, to the  meeting and some of the patrons of the bar complained that the dog was a nuisance. To get even with the complainers, Wood founded  the Krewe of Barkus and pronounced  Jo Jo parade queen and captain-for-life. Today the parade of costumed canines is still going strong. You can even enroll your dog in the krewe. There is a ball of the human escorts afterwards.

One of New Orleans most colorful Mardi Gras traditions are the Mardi Gras Indians. Today, it is a recognized part of Mardi Gras culture but that wasn't always the way it was. If you listen to the words of the traditional Indians song, I-KO, I-KO, it hints of violence.

Look at my king all dressed in red
I-KO, I-KO, un-day. I betcha five dollars he'll kill you dead
Jack-a-mo fee na-na

and another verse

My flag boy and your flag boy were
Sit-tin' by the fire. - My flag boy told
Your flag boy "I'm gonna set your flag on fire."

This krewe has no floats. Its members are mostly African American men from inner city neighborhoods who in the past used masking and the confusion of Mardi Gras to settle old scores. Today, it still doesn't announce its route but the "confrontations" between the "Big Chiefs" now are friendly competition over the elaborate costumes that are handmade and take months and in some cases thousands of dollars to create.

Bourbon Street is thronged with revelers on Mardi Gras

As you can imagine all this pageantry will cost a bundle and provide a lot of jobs. One of the chief creators of the floats and an attraction you can see year-round is Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World.

(See  http://www.americanroads.net/musuem_row_winter2015.htm )

Lake Charles is second only to New Orleans in Mardi Gras events and parades. It offers a very family friendly celebration with a few unique twists. It has a more Cajun flavor while New Orleans' celebration  is more Creole. Mardi Gras in Lake Charles culminates on Tuesday night with the Krewe of Krewes Parade. The unique thing about this parade is that Krewe of Krewes is made up of over 60 separate krewes.

Their Children's Parade is a fun event. I got to take part in it last year and wore out my arm throwing beads to the expectant little ones that lined the route.

Mardi Gras is so special for children

Their Royal Gala brings the fun of Mardi Gras to all at a very reasonable price. It is held the on Monday, Mardi Gras Eve, and offers all the opportunity usually only found at a ball.  Kings and queens, royal dukes and duchesses, captains, courtesans, and jesters all parade in full regalia with music, lights and dancing.

At the Royal Gala, you get to see a preview of all the royalty's costumes

At a Royal Gala, you are greeted by the 12th Night Revelers, another Lake Charles Mardi Gras custom. The 12th Night Revelers are decked in colorful jester costumes, many twirling parasols like Second Line Paraders. They were formed in 1991 by Anne Monlezun to spread the true meaning of Mardi Gras and act as Mardi Gras Ambassadors.

Another Lake Charles Mardi Gras event you should not miss is the show presented by the Krewe of Illusions. It is so professionally done, you think you must be on Broadway seeing a top show.

One scene for the Krewe of Illusions show

Man's best friend is not left out of the family celebration in Lake Charles. The Krewe of Barkus offers pups a chance to get rigged out in costume and compete for the title of "Mystical Dog." Their human helpers toss out both beads and dog biscuits.

Lake Charles is home to the largest Mardi Gras Museum in the South. The Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu is located in the Central School Arts & Humanities Center at 809 Kirby Street. The costumes are unbelievable in both beauty and scale. You can even try on one of them and climb on a float to toss your own beads. There is a display devoted to the King Cake and its traditions.  We even got to decorate our own kingcakes.

I'm trying on a royal headress at the Mardi Gras Museum The costumes alone are worth a trip to Lake Charles

In Calcasieu Parish, the Iowa Chicken Run is a unique take off on another only-in-Louisiana custom, the Courir de Mardi Gras. The original Cajun tradition  was for masked horsemen to ride the around the area stopping at homes to beg for something to make gumbo. The residents would bring out a chicken or some rice of vegetable and the revelers would get off the horses and dance and sing in return for the food offering.

In Iowa, there is a slightly different twist on the custom. Instead of just horseback riders, they have several trucks decked as floats. There are still some  horseback riders and a few four-wheel vehicles.  There is no exact route but Iowa homeowners come out to watch. When someone holds up a bag of rice or a package of chicken, the parade stops and everyone gets out playing zydeco music and dancing as a "thank you." When the dance ends the chicken is tossed and dozens of excited kids race off in its wake.

The captain prepars to toss the chicken Kids race to capture the chicken

Berline Bellard, who coordinated the event, explained the procedure. "When we stop. The captain will blow the whistle. We all unload  off the trailer and then he will throw the chicken in the air. The minute it hits the ground, the kids and even the dogs will take off after it. Whoever catches the chicken will bring it back."

They use four different roosters to avoid too much stress on the animals. Luckily these birds will not end up in the  gumbo pot that day. While the parade is en route, local ladies are back at the Knight of Columbus Hall preparing the meal the participants will enjoy upon their return. Of course there is music and dancing. That is compulsory at any Cajun event.

Visitors can purchase a ticket and get to ride on one of the "floats." Participants come from all over the world as well as locals. Last year, when I took part, Lake Charles mayor and his family rode on one of the floats with us. His grandsons chased the chickens along with children who lived in the local trailers.  This event brings together all races, economic levels and ages.

Shreveport/Bossier City  are also more family orientated. One of my favorite parades is Shreveport's Barkus and Meaux. It's open to any pet not just dogs. They have a King and  Queen of  Bone Apétit and court just like human krewes. The court are named for food related items  like Lady of the Fondue and Duke of Midnight Snacks. The parade is competitive with contests  that include Best Float, Pet/Owner look-a-like, and Best Dressed categories.

Who's having more fun, the kids, the dog or the onlookers

Shreveport/Bossier City has seven parades in all. The Krewe of Gemini has a museum with costumes of past royalty. It's open January  through March. Mardi Gras Bash is an opportunity for groups of 10 or more to enjoy a front-row experience for the Krewe of Centaur Parade held on the Saturday before Mardi Gras.

Another fun and free event is the float loading parties. Both the Krewe of Centaur and the Krewe of Gemini throw a party a night or so before the parade where visitors can visit the dent and watch the behind the scenes activities involved in putting on a super parade. (For more Shreveport Mardi Gras click here.)

One of the floats at the Float Loading Party.

Baton Rouge has the most informal Mardi Gras of this group. There are seven parades mainly focusing on weekend fun. The Krewe of Mutts is their tribute to man's best friend. Mardi Gras day the parade, Beauregard Town Walking Parade, is a human-powered event where anyone is free to join the parade. It has no gas guzzler floats. You either march, bicycle or create a pedal-powered float for this one. it ends with a big open party for all.

Their biggest parade, The Krewe of Spanish Town, is held on the Saturday before  Mardi Gras. It also ends with the ultimate Mardi Gras Party. It offers free bands, vendors, art exhibits and food. You can purchase a "Taste of Louisiana" meal tickets if you wish.

In Houma, Mardi Gras begins two weekends prior to Fat Tuesday With the Krewe of Hercules that Friday night and culminate with three parades on the big day,  Krewe of Houmas, Krewe of Kajuns and Krewe of Bonne Terre. Mardi Gras there is celebrated with a very Cajun flair.

Most Louisiana cities have some celebration of the day. Natchitoches has one parade, the Krewe of Dionysus, which has more than a dozen super floats.

It's a legal state holiday in Louisiana since 1875. Don't lose sight of the fact that it's also a religious holiday. Mardi Gras is always celebrated on Shrove Tuesday, also called Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent officially begins on Ash Wednesday. The weeks leading up to it are filled with King Cakes and parties.

Kingcake making is an art at Julie Anne's in Shreveport

Louisiana has food not usually found elsewhere  until the recent upswing of Cajun Cooking hit the airways. Things like po' boys, crawfish, gumbo, etouffee, boudon and dirty rice are a way of life in Louisiana.

Crawfish being dumped at Shreveport's  Mardi Gras Bash

Drive by Daiquiris can be found in many places. In case you are used to open-container  laws, the daiquiris servers comply by pasting a bit of tape over the straw hole. Naturally patrons remove the tape, put in the straw and slurp the icy goodness.

The first cocktail, the Sazerac, was created by a pharmacist in New Orleans in the early 19th century.  New Orleans is the birthplace of  Absinthe Frappe, the Ramos Gin Fizz, the Obituary Cocktail and Pat O'Brian's Hurricane. Antoine's Restaurant is  the birthplace of Oysters Rockefeller.

 “I’ll dance at your funeral” does not constitute a curse in Louisiana. It refers to Jazz Funerals which are embraced as a way to celebrate the life the dearly departed enjoyed  rather than mourn the end of that life.  Of course, Jazz is a part of New Orleans. Be sure to visit the Jazz Festival.  In 2016, it's April 22 to May 1.

Voodoo is not the stuff of bad horror movies in New Orleans. It is an accepted religion that is actively practiced by many people. A great place to understand Voodoo is with a visit to Jerry Gondolfo's  New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. It's the most authentic.

The Historic Voodoo Museum in New Orleans is truly unique

New Orleanians have a way with language that is decidedly European. If someone refers to a porte cochere, he's talking about what you call a carport. "Make the groceries" doesn't mean they are going to create them just go and buy them. Banquettes and neutral grounds describe the places called "sidewalks" and "medians" in other places. The term neutral ground came about after the Louisiana Purchase when Americans began to move into the city. French and Spanish Creoles, even the Free People of Color considered them barbarians and did not want to mingle with them. Business required dealings between Creoles and Americans so instead of the American being invited into the French Quarter or the Creole venturing into the Garden District or Irish Channel, where the  Americans lived, they would meet on the neutral ground on Canal Street. it divided the Quarter from the Uptown section and was thus a "neutral ground" for both parties.

The Canal Streetcar is a tradition in New Orleans

There is so much to see on both sides of that neutral ground, the Old Custom House, now the fantastic  Audubon Insectarium, the New Orleans Audubon Aquarium, streetcars like nowhere else,  A ferry to take you to the Algiers side and naturally Harrods Casino.

One of the exhibits at the Aquarium A butterfly poses at the Insectorium

My favorite "language story" relates to one of New Orleans favorite sports. I was taking a tour on one of the Hop-on Hop-off Tour Buses. When we passed Harrods on Canal Street, our guide informed us "Ladies and gentlemen, there is no gambling in New Orleans. Un un! Gambling is forbidden by the Louisiana Constitution."  At this point we were all looking to see if her keepers were pursuing her bus with a strait jacket.

She continued, "Governor Edwards was in office when we got casinos in Louisiana. He decided that even though gambling was forbidden, gaming was legal. So here we have gaming at the casino." (For more about Louisiana casinos, click here.)

I am from New Orleans and grew up with all this so it seems natural to me. Go visit and see what you think. I predict you will love Louisiana.

Some more of my Louisiana articles:

http://www.americanroads.net/new_orleans.htm

http://www.americanroads.net/museum_stroll_fall2014.htm

http://www.americanroads.net/court-of-two-sisters.htm

http://www.americanroads.net/off-the-beaten-path-spring08.htm

http://www.americanroads.net/mardigras.htm

http://www.americanroads.net/Fall2013/Music_row_Fall2013.htm

http://www.americanroads.net/innroads_winter2015.htm

http://www.americanroads.net/chuckwagon_roundup_winter2015.htm

http://www.americanroads.net/spring11-streetparty.htm

 

For more info:

http://www.visitlakecharles.org

http://www.shreveport-bossier.org

http://www.houmatravel.com

http://www.natchitoches.net/

http://www.visitbatonrouge.com

http://www.neworleansonline.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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