Throw Me Something, Mister!
Looking for the Real Mardi Gras? Get Out of New Orleans!
By Mike McHugh
Lake Charles, Louisiana
When I mention Mardi Gras to people who’ve never lived in Louisiana, they usually say something like, “Wow! I’d love to go to New Orleans for that sometime!” I grit my teeth, realizing they don’t have a clue. It’s like saying you’ve heard how great sushi is, and wouldn’t it be grand to sink your teeth into a live electric eel?
Mardi Gras celebrations take place throughout Louisiana in the southeast United States each year. They begin in early January, around the Catholic holiday of Epiphany. The parties hit their boiling points on “Fat Tuesday” (translated from the French term Mardi Gras), when revelers gorge themselves on fatty foods and brace for the ritual fasting of Lent.
New Orleans has the most famous Mardi Gras festivities, but for a more genuine experience, drive three hours west – out of the so-called Crescent City, along Interstate 10. You’ll find yourself in Lake Charles, home of Louisiana’s second largest Mardi Gras celebration. There, you can celebrate Fat Tuesday like the locals – if you can hang with them.
Fancy a parade? Well, the floats roll, and the beads rain, all weekend long. It begins Friday night with the Merchant’s Parade and doesn’t stop until the Krewe of Krewes Parade winds down Ryan Street on Fat Tuesday.
Float riders fling strings of beads into the crowd. Get ready to catch them; a Mardi Gras parade is not a spectator sport. You’ll need a hefty bag (or a long neck) to hold your share.
There’s no need to camp out curbside. You’ll snag plenty of beads, no matter where you stand – at least when our float runs by, because my wife’s up there, and she fancies herself as baseball pitcher Roger Clemens. Some of the beads she’s thrown have ended up around the necks of revelers on Bourbon Street, back in New Orleans.
In addition to the parades, there are loads of other activities (translation: excuses to consume adult beverages). The World Famous Cajun Extravaganza and Gumbo Cook-Off happens Saturday morning on the Civic Center lakefront. The local “krewes” — the social clubs that make Mardi Gras happen — face off to determine who can concoct the best, authentic Louisiana gumbo – a spicy seafood or meat soup in a thick roux of browned flour and oil, with the “holy trinity” of vegetables: onions, bell peppers, and celery. Traditionally, it’s served over rice, and it’s not bad to toss in a dollop of potato salad .
For a small admission fee, you can sample as much gumbo as you can jam between your ribs. Be sure to try some from the wild game category. The gumbo cook-off is a great way to taste the prizes of this Sportsman’s Paradise. The meats are often caught using traditional methods, by which I mean, vehicular impact.
But don’t believe everything you read. The official rules strictly forbid the use of roadkill. Still, check for tread marks just in case.
On Saturday night, the Krewe of Illusions hosts a Mardi Gras ball. Tickets to the black-tie affair are available to the public. The presentation of their Royal Court is a sight to behold. Illusions are famous for their extravagant costumes. The collars have so many feathers, once you see how much plucking was involved, you’ll understand why ostriches don’t fly.
Missed the ball because you over-indulged at the gumbo cook-off? No problem. There’s a second chance to sneak a peek at the Illusions costumes. Monday night at the Royal Gala, the Illusions court joins the other fifty-some krewes. One by one, they parade in full regalia across the floor of the Civic Center Coliseum. This is something you won’t see in New Orleans, where you’d need a ball ticket to see many of the royal courts in costume.
While you’re at the gala, get yourself a piece King Cake, the official confection of Mardi Gras. You might be among the lucky few who sink their teeth into a piece with a toy baby baked inside. That’ll win you a wonderful door prize; maybe even a plucked ostrich courtesy of the Krewe of Illusions.
This only scratches the surface of what Southwest Louisiana has to offer on Mardi Gras weekend. You can find out more at swlamardigras.com.
If you do decide to come, look for my wife and me as we ride past with the Krewe de la Déjà Vu du Monde.
And be sure to duck when she goes into her windup.
Mike McHugh is author of “The Dang Yankee,” a humorous column about a life in Louisiana and the world at large, from the perspective of a slowly graying northerner. Started in 2009, it’s a popular feature in The Jambalaya News, a publication covering Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas.