Mardi Gras 2021 was unlike any other. Because of the coronavirus, parades and parties were canceled, bars shuttered, and popular streets were blocked off to prevent gatherings. Even Mother Nature conspired to keep us home, giving us the coldest Mardi Gras since 1899.
I couldn’t help but feel a little blue during Carnival season, especially on the night that Muses usually rolls and the weekends that should be filled with marching bands, dancing groups, and hot cheese fries while beads rain down at us. But I get it. Last year’s Mardi Gras was a superspreader event, where one person infected 50,000 others. The pandemic hit New Orleans early and hard, our hospitals overflowing and many people losing loved ones. Nobody wants to go through that again.
But this is a love letter to the spirit of New Orleanians. During hard times, we find ways to come together. Even without most of the accoutrements, folks found ways to express that Mardi Gras spirit. Muses krewe members brightened hospital workers’ days with Operation Shoe Fairy, Rex donated a million dollars to public schools, and the Krewe of Red Beans went above and beyond, supporting musicians, restaurants, artists, and bars with several amazing programs.
The Krewe of House Floats–aka Yardi Gras–is another brilliant example, where one woman inspired hundreds to decorate their porches to look like parade floats, hiring out-of-work float artists to create papier-mache sculptures, flowers, and paintings. All season long, it has been a blast to see the house floats pop up in different neighborhoods. Mardi Gras day, my family brewed up some hot cocoa and drove around checking them out, along with lots of other families in cars, on bikes, and on foot (but wearing masks and keeping distanced).
As we drove, we played WWOZ, which featured Mardi Gras shows from the archives. My favorite was one from 1994 hosted by Dr. John, the Night Tripper himself. He interviewed Mardi Gras Indians and played all the Mardi Gras hits: Mardi Gras Mambo, Down in New Orleans, All on a Mardi Gras Day, Iko Iko…just a reminder that Mardi Gras has been part of the spirit here for many years.
All of the krewes that normally parade throughout the season came together to showcase floats in City Park for Floats in the Oaks, which was another suggestion from a local person not affiliated with a krewe or the park. Thanks to a good idea, folks could drive through the park to see the floats all lit up. There must’ve been a few beads and cups and throws because I saw the remaining evidence on my morning walks (and even snagged a stuffed banana and a few plastic cups). We didn’t do the drive–the kids don’t like sitting in the car that much–but I enjoyed seeing the familiar floats in the mornings and appreciating the spirit of camaraderie that brought them together.
All season long, we indulged in king cakes from various bakeries, mostly thanks to the King Cake Hub. Set up in the Broad Theater, a temporarily shuttered independent movie house, racks of king cakes from bakeries around the city enticed us to try galette de rois, black-and-gold chocolate king cake, and hot-pink-with-gold-glitter strawberry king cake.
Back at home, we checked out some of the online offerings from Tipitinas.TV, Mardi Gras for All Y’all, the Bacchus app, KreweofTucks.com, and a couple of PBS shows featuring old footage of parades from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. In between we made gumbo z’herbes, spicy bloody marys (I only crave them on Mardi Gras mornings), and steamed Mardi Gras milk punch (brandy, steamed milk, vanilla, sugar, and nutmeg). Ian got the costumes out of the attic, so we put on hats, capes, wigs, and glitter to take the dogs for a walk. All in all, Mardi Gras came just the same. It’s not that we’re the city that care forgot. We care. We just know how to pass a good time at the same time.