Philly Friends Meet New Orleans Carnival

This year’s Mardi Gras marks the third consecutive season for me. As a resident living in New Orleans, it is easy to look forward to the revelry and good cheer surrounding this joyous time. While the rest of the country slows down their celebrations after New Year’s, NOLA keeps its spirits energized for a few more weeks before the season of Lent begins. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the mark of the final indulgence before the start of personal sacrifice and introspection on Ash Wednesday. Each Mardi Gras has been a first — a first for me two years ago, a first for my husband last year, and a first for my two college friends who visited us this year. My husband and I both had a four-day weekend, so we were thrilled at taking our friends around and enjoying good food and parades.

Mask shop on Royal Street

When our friends arrived on Saturday, we took them to Katie’s, a favorite local spot that was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The first order of business was the crawfish beignet – I have spoken of this wonder before, but words simply cannot do it justice. The flavors scream umami! Amongst the four of us, we enjoyed blueberry and jalapeño ribs, a seafood platter of fried shrimp, crawfish, and oysters, and a fried-green-tomato-and-shrimp-remoulade po’ boy. You heard me. We topped it off with a king-cake-flavored doberge cake, a combination of two New Orleans favorites. And so began what a colleague’s patient once coined “Southern Cardiac Death.”

King cake doberge
King cake doberge

Following the late lunch, we walked over to Canal Street in Mid City to watch the Krewe of Endymion parade. This is one of the longest parades of Mardi Gras. My favorite part of the parades is the marching bands; their costumes, music, and confident energy make it impossible to stand still.

Krewe of Endymion
Krewe of Endymion
Krewe of Endymion

That evening, our friends had a hankering for some good old-fashioned southern fried chicken. We took them to Coop’s in the French Quarter, and I know they were satisfied because they, like my husband and me, loved eating! They weren’t as impressed with the other items at Coop’s (i.e. red beans and rice, gumbo, and jambalaya), and to be perfectly honest, I have definitely tasted better elsewhere. The fried chicken was worth the trip though. Afterwards, we attempted to walk off some calories through the quarter, but ended up at Cafe Du Monde for some beignets. I don’t normally like donuts, but these simple pastries covered in just-sweet-enough powdered sugar have never disappointed me. They go perfectly with a cup of hot cafe au lait or a mini carton of cold chocolate milk.

Hot beignets at Cafe du Monde
Hot beignets at Cafe Du Monde

On Sunday, my friend was on a mission for excellent gumbo. I myself am not a huge fan of gumbo (I prefer jambalaya, probably because it is akin to a southern version of biryani), so I had to do some research to find good reviews. I ended up suggesting Gumbo Shop, as cliché as it sounded, because most of the reviews were excellent. The atmosphere paired perfectly with the cloudy, drizzly day, and the warm seafood gumbo, crawfish étouffée, red beans and rice, and crawfish pasta in a spicy Cajun sauce were the epitome of comfort food. I would definitely recommend Gumbo Shop to anyone in search of delicious southern food.

Crawfish and tasso in a spicy Cajun sauce
Crawfish pasta in a spicy Cajun sauce
Seafood gumbo
Seafood gumbo

We later headed over to Frenchmen Street where the bars were already buzzing with people enjoying the live music. I love Frenchmen for its variety of bands, several of which may play at one venue on any given night. My friends were hungry for a snack, so we steered them toward Cafe Negril where there is a taco station in the back. One can never go wrong with one of their tacos, quesadillas, or hefty burritos! My old landlord even hired the well-known taco truck for a courtyard party last year.

Cafe Negril
Market on Frenchmen
Frenchmen Art Market

After listening to a fantastic band, we headed home for a very late dinner. Nirav made his special lamb curry, and I made a vegetable curry of cauliflower, potatoes, and mixed vegetables. A bottle of wine and a slice of cheesecake later, we succumbed to the inevitable food coma.

Nirav's lamb curry
Nirav’s lamb curry

Sleeping late on Lundi Gras day, we had some leftover king cake and coffee for breakfast before heading Uptown for the evening parades. The rain didn’t keep people away, and the crowds were as lively as ever in their wild costumes, playing music and instruments, dancing, singing, and having a grand time. We stayed for all of the Krewe of Proteus and part of the Krewe of Orpheus. Eventually hunger got the better of us and we ventured back to Mid City for some po’ boys at Parkway Bakery and Tavern. Walking distance from our apartment, Parkway is a well-known spot for solid po’ boys. It opened in 1911 and closed after being submerged in eight feet of water during Katrina. After the hurricane, it was one of the first restaurants to reopen. Anytime I wait in line to order, my eyes always linger for a few moments on the three paintings inside entitled “Before,” “During,” and “After” (Katrina).

President Obama at Parkway (2010). Note the “Before,” “During,” and “After” paintings on the wall.

I normally order the hot pastrami po’ boy, but sadly they were out by the time we arrived for dinner. Nonetheless, the grilled cheese with a side of gravy fries was a fine substitute; pouring that gravy over the grilled cheese made for a heavenly sandwich. Nirav went for his personal favorite, a classic golden shrimp po’ boy. Our friends made us both look like wimps as they torpedoed through chili cheese fries, gumbo, a surf ‘n turf po’ boy, and an alligator sausage po’ boy. We were thoroughly impressed (albeit mildly regretful by the end of the meal, ha!)

Our plan was to take a bit of a break at home before heading out to Frenchmen again to see The Soul Rebels play. They are a local brass band that are great fun to dance to; my friend had heard their music from a friend of his before, but had never seen them live. Unfortunately, the heavy meal caused heavy eyelids and we ended up calling it a night.

The next morning we awoke early to catch the Krewe of Zulu, the predominantly African American Mardi Gras association. This was my first year attending Zulu, and I was delighted at the beautiful costumes adorned with feathers. Zulu is special in that the members throw decorative coconuts. This custom dates back to the early 1900s when other parade groups threw expensive, hand-made glass necklaces. Because the men of Zulu were laborers who could not afford similar throws, they bought and decorated coconuts from the French Market. These grew in popularity and remain coveted even now.

Krewe of Zulu
Krewe of Zulu
Krewe of Zulu
King of Zulu
Zulu coconuts

Finally, the experience of attending Zulu on Orleans Avenue struck the four of us as sharply contrasting the experience of attending the parades Uptown. It is starkly obvious how divided wealth is, and even Mardi Gras cannot transcend those lines. Yes, everyone finds cause to celebrate and enjoy the season, but human nature dictates that they do so within their own groups, cliques, and social classes. Some attend the pricey masquerade balls and pay thousands of dollars to throw beads from the floats. Others cook, grill and boil jambalaya, ribs, and crawfish to share within their own neighborhoods. Some make ladder seats for their children to view the parade from. Others who cannot afford these hoist their children up on their shoulders. No matter who you are, everyone wants the same glittery shoe or the same decorative coconut. It warmed my heart to hear children’s voices politely asking for coconuts at the end of the parade line. This juxtaposition speaks volumes about the ever-present divide between the rich and the poor, not only in New Orleans, but across the world.

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