The nice thing about constantly moving about the world is the diversity of experiences you get to take part in - cultural, scientific, historical and otherwise. In February, I found myself in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. As a first timer I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Like most non-residents, my ignorant and modern day understanding of Mardi Gras was one of plastic beads, crafty parades and heavy drinking.
While I can confirm that these are indeed centerpieces of the celebration, there’s a great deal more tradition and culture to the affair than that. Thanks to a New Orleans friend’s involvement in one of Mardi Gras’s more well known “krewes”, the Krewe de Lune, I was able to partake in the occasion in what felt like a particularly local way for an outsider such as myself. The result was hours of parading alongside some of NOLA’s finest star-steppin’ “Cosmonaughties,” adorned in their signature colors of blue, silver and glitter (glitter, as you quickly learn, is a color for Cosmonaughties).
Sparkle and costume aside, though, I wanted to understand the deeper significance behind the most common - and commonly misunderstood - customs of Fat Tuesday. So I spent some time delving into krewes, beads and cake, among other things. The result was a fascinating peek into New Orleans’ social and entertainment history, the sharing of which will hopefully offer a bit more local insight for your next Mardi Gras.
1) Parades & Krewes: It might be surprising to learn that historically, America’s most famous party was not a party for all. Mardi Gras balls and the “krewes” that hosted them were actually quite exclusive, reserved for the elite of the city’s populace. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the socially ambitious began forming their own krewes, making Mardi Gras a more inclusive event (however, krewes still remained separated on racial, class and gender lines for quite some time).
Today, krewes are the central feature of Mardi Gras street parades, often represented by elaborate floats, music, performances or signature items dished out to the crowds. Some are newly formed, others have been around for decades. In all cases, krewes are the creative life source of the party, offering endless entertainment and infusing crowds with pride and excitement.
2) Beads: Sorry, but the tossing of bead necklaces did not invite wild bosom flashing in the streets of 19th century New Orleans (fun visual, though!) Bead throwing had everything to do with the three signature Mardi Gras colors determined by the king back in the 1870s: purple for justice, gold for power, green for faith. The idea was to toss the color beads to those who exhibited the color’s meaning.
3) King Cake: King Cake is perhaps the most important food item consumed during Mardi Gras. It is eaten from King’s Day, January 6th, until Fat Tuesday, the last day of indulgence before Lent.
If you’ve ever eaten a King Cake, a brioche-styled cake garnished with purple, gold and green sprinkles, you know that the most exciting part about it is the chance of procuring a 1-inch plastic baby Jesus from your slice.
Traditionally, however, the earliest king cakes were simple oval cakes eaten on January 6th to honor the Three Kings, a custom that dates back to Old World Europe - no tri-color sparkles, no baby Jesus figurine. Historians say that a New Orleans social group from the late 19th century, called the Twelfth Night Revelers, hosted the first ball of the season and took up the custom of hiding a bean or pecan (and later, things like a jeweled ring) inside the cake. Drawing the hidden treasure in the King Cake was used to determine who would be crowned king or queen of the ball.
So where did the baby Christ figurine enter the picture? It turns out that there’s an interesting story behind the tradition, and it’s thanks to a traveling salesman who approached a local bakery in the 1950s with a surplus of porcelain doll figurines from France. He suggested the baker embed them in the cakes instead of using whatever small treasure was popular at the time.
After eventually running out of porcelain figurines, someone ran to a local store in the French Quarter and snatched up the little plastic baby that is now so well associated with the modern day King Cake. Given the deep religious ties to the event (and the cake), the baby figurine befittingly came to represent baby Christ.