There is good news and bad news about Mardi Gras this year. I’ll start with the bad: there are no parades, no balls, no gatherings, the bars are closed and the city will lose an estimated $1 billion in tourism revenue. The good news? In a genius move, New Orleans residents are decorating their homes as Mardi Gras floats for a city-wide celebration called the Krewe of House Floats, or Yardi Gras. Participants can walk, bike, or drive the “parade route.” Since krewes can’t ride this year, they’re using professional float makers to decorate houses around town. People are very into it. COVID tried to wet blanket Mardi Gras and New Orleans said Jesus 👏 be 👏 a👏 fence!
My partner and I are living in New Orleans for the time being, partially to escape the NYC winter, and I feel grateful to be here, humidity and all. While I might long for Mardi Gras festivities of bygone years (except one in college where I drunkenly ate a bunch of egg rolls and threw up in a Saks 5th Avenue), this year’s celebration offers up a little glimmer of hope, signifying that Mardi Gras might not be the same as before, but that doesn't mean it isn't good.
So here are some recommendations to help you celebrate your own Fat Tuesday with a jazzy playlist, a strong cocktail, and other Crescent City delights.
🎥 Watch: The Princess and the Frog
I watched this movie specifically for this newsletter, and I was annoyed with myself that I hadn’t seen it earlier. Anika Noni Rose voices Tiana, the protagonist of The Princess and the Frog and the first Black Disney princess in the franchise. Set in New Orleans in the 1920s, the movie follows waitress and budding chef Tiana, as she and her love interest, Prince Naveen of Maldonia, are turned into frogs by an evil voodoo mystic called The Shadow Man. They hop around a bayou, they sing and dance with a Cajun firefly, Ray, (like Ray Charles) and trumpet-playing alligator, Louis, (like Louis Armstrong), they fall in love, and the denouement is at a Mardi Gras parade. It’s all set against a classically Disney hand-drawn, animated New Orleans.
We can’t talk about this Mardi Gras without talking about the terrible outcome of last year’s Mardi Gras. For the New York Times Magazine, writer Linda Villarosa features the Krewe of Zulu to illustrate the stark racial disparities of Covid-19’s impact. Following Mardi Gras festivities, eight members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a predominantly Black krewe, died after contracting the virus and 30 more were sick. Villarosa meticulously documents the timeline of the initial reports of coronavirus in the US against the preparation and lead up to Mardi Gras 2020, including the downplaying of the virus by the Trump administration and the historically racist legislative decisions that result in Black people receiving subpar healthcare.
“Founded in 1909, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is a brotherhood of some 800 men, nearly all of them black, known for community service, civic pride, black excellence and that Mardi Gras parade. And so on that late February day, as people stood shoulder to shoulder and several feet deep, hoping to catch a painted coconut, the “throw” that is the Zulu parade’s signature and coveted prize, no one had any idea that this joyous gathering would turn out to be a coronavirus hothouse.”
Runner-up: How Women Are Changing Mardi Gras, a deep dive into the world of all-female krewes including the Krewe of Muses, Krewe of Nyx, and the Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale, the “first krewe founded by African American women for African American women.”
🥃 Drink: Sazerac
In 2008, Louisiana state senator Edwin R. Murray introduced a bill to make the Sazerac the “official cocktail of New Orleans”. The bill was defeated, debated MORE, then finally enacted later that year. (I love how there was also a devastating financial crisis happening at this time, but New Orleans was like first order of business is the official cocktail, y’all!!) However, the Sazerac is New Orleans in a glass—absinthe, rye whiskey, sugar, Peychaud’s bitters, and lemon. Antoine Peychaud invented the drink in New Orleans in the mid-19th century, using Sazerac-de-Forge et fils Cognac in the first iterations (hence the name), and his namesake bitters. Today, the drink is a symbol of New Orleans booze culture and an easy way to celebrate Mardi Gras at home.
🥣 Make: Curried Shrimp and Crab Gumbo
We ate this Curried Shrimp and Crab Gumbo last weekend at Saffron Nola, a James Beard-nominated Indian restaurant that uses local Louisiana ingredients. Arvinder Vilkhu and Pardeep Vilkhu immigrated from India to New Orleans and have been in the restaurant business for over 30 years, starting in catering, moving into a pop-up restaurant, and now wowing guests with a full-fledged brick-and-mortar location. The gumbo is served in a little hotpot, poured over pepper, cilantro, and scallions. Warm and cozy!
📱 Follow: @ Nola Val
New Orleans is a photogenic city. One minute it’s foggy and spooky, and then the next the sun is shining through an oak tree onto a pastel-colored Creole cottage. Valerie Esparza, the photographer behind Nola Val, documents the most beautiful nooks and crannies of the city, and she’s currently photographing some of the best Yardi Gras decorations. Just looking at her pictures right now puts me in a celebratory mood.
Another great New Orleans Instagram to follow: Look At This Fuckin’ Street, a photo account of all the most insane potholes, sidewalk cracks, and unexplained gigantic holes all over town. (Caption: look at this literal manhole.) If you didn’t believe New Orleans was sinking into the ocean before, this account will change your mind.
🎷 Listen: Mardi Gras Playlist
Music is the backbone of Mardi Gras. Each year, in addition to parades and balls, Mardi Gras dance troupes and marching bands hit the streets in arguably the most joyful and exciting element of the entire celebration. The women’s dance troupes have the best names: The Pussyfooters, The Camel Toe Lady Steppers, The Bearded Oysters, Muff-A-Lottas. Blast this playlist and get to steppin’ in a brand new dance troupe titled The Ladies of the Living Room.
Shameless plug alert! My partner’s family owns a bakery that sells the best king cakes in all of Louisiana. I’m not just saying that—they won 1st place in the 2019 New Orleans King Cake Festival. Gooey Butter Snickerdoodle is their bestseller and it comes with the lil’ baby and other Mardi Gras decorations.
(Fun fact: King cake babies used to be baked into the cakes and whoever got the slice with the baby had to buy next year’s cake. But because Americans are a litigious bunch, bakeries have stopped doing that lest a customer chips a tooth or serves the baby slice to a 3-year-old. ALSO, when you type “king cake baby lawsuit” into Google this story about the New Orleans basketball team mascot vs. the Happy Death Day movie character pops up and...I just cannot.)
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