Mardi Gras has been on my party bucket list for a while, since it often comes up on largest-parties-in-the-world lists. I envisioned it as a southern purple-green-and-gold version of St. Patricks day, slutty bleached blondes flooding the crowded streets of a mythical land called “The French Quarter”. NOLA native buddy Matt got my crew the hookup this year: a floor to sleep on in downtown New Orleans and southern hospitality ample enough for seven San Franciscans to pop their Mardi Gras cherries (Hurricanes?)
Mardi Gras is more of a season than a holiday, but we happened to be there at its peak, the last weekend before Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Lent starts. Perhaps the strategy of the whole affair is to throw you into a 40-day long hangover that prevents you from sinning?
Just being in ~*~The South~*~ involved some culture shock for this northern city girl (accents, lactation rooms, and chapels, all in the airport, oh my!) but let’s stay focused on the Mardi Party and break it #down.
The parades are a *Big Deal*, and they are all different.
I knew to expect parades, but I did not realize how huge they were going to be. First of all, there are a zillion parades and they are nonstop ALL DAY EVERY DAY for something like 5 days straight (plus the parades the previous weekends). They stretch all across the city, so you can walk for miles along a parade’s path. Basically everywhere we walked all weekend was along a parade path, so we were actually participating in parades like 6 hours a day. Different parades have different vibes — Endymion was extravagant with floats costing over a MILLION DOLLAR$$$ EACH, but it was incredibly crowded/packed to the point where you could barely see it, whereas Bacchus was animal themed, more low key, and involved a lot of glowing shit.
The parade will throw things at you.
Standard Mardi Parade Format: there is a float with a bunch of old ladies in slightly horrifying masks standing on top, and in between floats there are high school marching bands. The old ladies throw things from atop the float, usually the all-important Mardi Gras beads, but sometimes cups, toys, or glowing party accessories. Unfortunately for those of us with no hand-eye coordination, this means you constantly have to keep your arms up in self defense, lest a pack of beads land in your face.
Babies on ladders.
To watch the parade, you stake out a spot and put down some lawn chairs and your cooler maybe. But if you have a baby, you put it on a ladder! So that the babies can see what’s going on, plus for cute appeal so that the ladies-on-floats will throw goodies at your children (I think??) I’m #notclearon the ladder-baby Mardi Gras death rate, but I did witness a child hit in the head with some beads and the dad immediately rationalize, “Oh, that wasn’t so hard!” #southernparenting?
Especially after the parade, there’s trash everywhere, a heavy sense of abandonment, plus extreme humidity and grey skies, that culminate in a distinct zombiepocalypse vibe. Also, prisoners clean up the trash from the parades, hella creepy.
BEADS – What is the deal?
You must really be wearing Mardi Gras beads at ALL TIMES. Otherwise you look like a moron.
We made the mistake of going out on Bourbon Street (the main shitshow area for tourists/sluts) without beads the first night, pretty awk. These kids are doin it right:
Once beads touch the ground, they are worthless.
Our local friends told us it was bad karma to pick up beads off of fences, etc. where people have hung them decoratively, and it’s bad karma to pick them off the street because someone probably peed on them. The city of New Orleans didn’t seem particularly urinated on to me, but then again I live in San Francisco, which is one giant urinal.
Trade economy of beads.
While at the parades, the float ladies throw beads at you pretty much as long as you make eye contact. Nevertheless, people in the crowd still wave and shout at the float ladies as if getting beads were extremely exciting and not the easiest thing in the world.
However, once you’re partying on Bourbon Street, there are no ladder babies and there are no old ladies, it’s the slutty St. Patricks Day-style street party scene of my Mardi dreams, and beads come at a price of flashing boobies. People stand on the second floor balconies of the bar/clubs and dangle beads over the heads of people wading through the street (wall-to-wall people). A girl makes eye contact with a balcony person, flashes, and receives beads. Sometimes, beads are thrown for not-quite-flashings, or to guys, though I didn’t discover any hard-and-fast rules on what level of exhibitionism is or isn’t bead-worthy.
By the end of every day, you probably will have collected roughly 3x as many beads as you actually want, and damn those things are heavy. Going on the balcony and tossing beads is a good way to reduce your bead supply, as is just dumping off all your beads at your host’s apartment at the end of the day.
King Cake is the most important Mardi Gras food. It’s basically a giant cinnamon roll with frosting on top decorated with purple, green, and yellow sugar. There is a plastic baby inside, and the tradition is that whoever gets the piece with the baby in it is responsible for buying the next king cake. FYI, every king cake seemed to cost $13.99.
This is a year-round item, not just Mardi Gras season. It’s pronounced “BEN YAY” for those of you who are confused by the Frenchness going on here. Fried dough with a mountain of powdered sugar on it = extremely delicious. The canonical beignet way is to get these with some coffee at Cafe Du Monde around 3 or 4 AM on your way back from partying in the French Quarter. Warning: DO NOT WEAR DARK CLOTHING as you will be covered in this stuff by the time you’re through. Also don’t sneeze.
Things that don’t involve sugar
Even though New Orleans is literally made of sugar, there were a few New Orleans dishes that happened to not involve mountains of sugar on top:
– Jambalaya — rice + sausagey dish
– Gumbo — jambalaya in liquid form, but spicier and involving more seafood. The best one we had was street food, some window alongside one of the parades.
– Po-boys — fried shrimp inside an enormous piece of bread
– Fried chicken, or actually fried anything, including alligator — our locals were shocked I had never tried alligator or snake.
This list, plus the two items above, are an all inclusive list food in New Orleans. Will New Orleans discover vegetables? Stay tuned to find out. (I kid, I actually had some really delicious Brussel Sprouts at Butcher.)
Hurricanes and giant daiquiris were probably the drinks of choice, plus of course beer. Open containers were not only permitted but encouraged — bars gave you to-go cups (to avoid bringing glass bottles out). At Rite Aid, you had to set down your hurricane at the door and pick it up on the way out, but there were GUARDS watching over the drinks (!!) and low and behold nobody’s drink was stolen or roofied while we bought body wash.
The French Quarter
Most of the advice revolving around Mardi Gras seems to be either “Bourbon Street is where the party’s at, go there” or “Don’t even bother with Bourbon Street, it’s a shitshow and everywhere else is better.” In reality, Bourbon was a bit underwhelming, yes a shitshow but wasn’t super crowded compared to Bay to Breakers street danceparties, or a train at rush hour in Japan. But the second floor balcony bead-throwing component was unique and probably the most interesting part.
I’d advise to try it, both as a walker and as a bead-thrower, and then just use Yelp and go to places that match your vibe, like dungeon bars if you are us.
Bourbon has hella downsides tho:
– Ladies be prudes (albeit sluttily dressed prudes). Flashing was surprisingly #rare — we were on a balcony for maybe an hour and saw max like 10 pairs of breasts. Mostly dudes just crowded below and yelled/shook their asses. #sausagefest #typical
– Not LGBT friendly — I couldn’t get ANY girls to flash me, or even really maintain eye contact for more than 2 seconds. Maybe I’m just an incompetent bead-thrower, but a Dorothy “you’re not in San Francisco anymore” situation. What about Big Freedia, y’all!??
– Bourbon street is DANGEROUS. People were shot there on Saturday night. Getting killed at Mardi Gras would be a major party foul.
Aside from falling outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, New Orleans is also inhabited by old people and ladder babies, so I wasn’t expecting much technology or app-tivity (Yelp reviews, etc.) Our friend’s apartment didn’t even have its own Foursquare checkin before we arrived (come ON people!!!)
However, New Orleans did feature a GIANT TWEET WALL at a funk show, which I have not seen in San Francisco (aside from at @veroz’s birthday party, of course).
Tweet with the hashtag #wolfgras and it’ll be projected for all to see (unless you use textbook profanity, in which case it was censored). Very quickly it devolved into a very large and inappropriate conversation about Brian’s mom. Public commentary at its finest, I was very #proud.
I was a bit underwhelmed by the actual partying going on at Mardi Gras — not quite up to the RIDICULOUSITY I’m used to. San Francisco parties/festivals often have a high WTF factor, whereas Mardi Gras was a bit more party in a family-values-meets-jello-shots kind of way. Certainly a new thing for me.
Maybe there just wasn’t as much nudity or crossdressing in San Francisco? Something absurd was missing, anyhow.
However, we did pick up a lot of loot perfect for any San Franciscan’s party box (you know, the box in your living room or closet full of costume accessories and brightly colored sunglasses?) My fave was a glowing plastic cup. When @lewisisgood caught it for me I pretty much felt like I had WON MARDI GRAS.
And, I do have to hand it to NOLA for being a city willing to just go into parade mode for 3 weeks a year. Like, dang.
If you do decide to attend Mardi Gras, I suggest you simply remember the 3 basic rules:
1. Always wear your beads.
2. Babies in cakes and on ladders.
(Badass photo courtesy of @veroz)
And a big shoutout to @schouest for making this trip happen and to his friends for putting up with us for an entire weekend!