No Ordinary Time Tuesday, Jan 6 2015 

Haydel's King Cake, Super Bowl, 2010.

Haydel’s King Cake, Super Bowl, 2010.

Today is the Epiphany, which for Catholics marks the end of the Advent/Christmas season. Trees on the curb by December 26th notwithstanding. The period following the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord (the Sunday following Epiphany) and the beginning of Lent is called Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar. So church-wise, there will not be a whole lot going on.

However, in New Orleans and in most Catholic-infused cultures, Epiphany marks both the end of Christmas and the beginning of the Carnival season; that is, the season ending with Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, the day of celebration before Ash Wednesday and the solemnity of Lent. So Christmas candles are replaced by King Cakes, while shopping and gift-giving and caroling are replaced by dances, masked balls, and parades.

Joan of Arc Parade, January 2015.

Joan of Arc Parade, January 2015.

So today, in addition to the first King Cakes of the Carnival season (Haydel’s Bakery had Uber delivering them all day), there was the Joan of Arc parade in the French Quarter. And Uptown, the Phunny Phorty Phellows commandeered the St. Charles streetcar line for an evening of frivolity. And as is true every year, this is just the beginning. Goodbye Christmas; welcome to Carnival.

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Zatarain’s Sunday, Jan 19 2014 

Emile Zatarain, Sr.

Emile Zatarain, Sr.

There are a number of trademarks that are inextricably linked to New Orleans and one of those is celebrating a its 125th anniversary. In 1889, Emile Zatarain, Sr. founded a business at 925 Valmont Street in New Orleans. His first product was root beer extract, but that soon grew to include seasonings and bleach. The product line continued to expand and included spicy Creole mustard and various pickled vegetables.

In 1922, Zatarain turned the business over to his son Emile Zatarain, Jr., whose wife, Ida May, contributed her own recipes for this such as remoulade sauce and olive relish to the company’s produce line. In time, was purchased by a succession of larger companies. The business moved to nearby Gretna, LA and less profitable products like bleach and pickled vegetables fell by the wayside. In the 1970s it concurrently grew into a regional food supplier and institutional food service.

zatarainsIn 1985, the company featured some 60 products, but began marketing boxes rice dishes for which it became known across the United States. Anyone could add Creole spice to their dinners with a box of Dirty Rice, Gumbo Mix or Jambalaya Mix. It temporary marketed some products as “Cajun,” but eventually settled on the more refined “Creole” image.

In 2003, Zatarain’s truly became national when it was purchased by McCormick & Company, the world’s largest spice and seasoning company based in Maryland. Coincidentally, it too began in 1889 as a purveyor of root beer flavorings. The purchase gave the company both national and international distribution, but at its heart, it remains New Orleans-centric. Many of its products, such as crab boil and Creole mustard are aimed at Louisiana chefs and a discerning local market. And as proof, it began a campaign a few years back to make Mardi Gras a national holiday. Needless to say, that has never caught hold, but cooks far and wide have nevertheless “Jazzed it up with Zatarain’s.”

Carnival 2014 Sunday, Jan 5 2014 

Epiphany_WordleTomorrow is January 6th, the Catholic Feast of the Epiphany, the Twelfth Night, the end of Christmas. It comes from the Greek, epiphaneia, or manifestation, the moment Christ was revealed to the Gentiles as represented by the Three Magi. And in much of the Catholic world, which certainly includes New Orleans, it marks the beginning of Carnival.

Carnival is the period between the end of the Christmas season and beginning of Lent, so this year it runs from January 6th through Mardi Gras, which this year falls on March 4th. In fact, the timing of Mardi Gras means that Carnival will run for 58 days, which is just a few days short of the longest it can be. Nevertheless, the festivities come to a raucous conclusion over the days leading up to and including Mardi Gras. Immediately following, at midnight to be exact, comes Ash Wednesday and the more somber, reflective season of Lent.

Phunny-Phorty-Phellows-RouteIn between the Epiphany and “Trash Wednesday,” the Roman Catholic Church returns to “Ordinary Time,” but in New Orleans, it is anything but ordinary. While most folks are aware of the Mardi Gras parades leading up to Mardi Gras itself, Carnival also features numerous dances, masked balls, and debutante coming out parties. And even though most krewes and social clubs parade over the days leading up to Mardi Gras, there are some parades sprinkled throughout the season. In fact, on Epiphany itself, the members of the Phunny Phorty Phellows, the “Heralds of Carnival,” will mask and take over the St. Charles Streetcar Line to mark the beginning of the festivities.

So cut the king cake, break out the beads, and get ready for the Carnival season.

Mardi Gras Redux Wednesday, Feb 13 2013 

In spite of my obsession with New Orleans, I have never made it Mardi Gras. A couple of years ago, I got there four days after the fact, but folks Uptown were still ready for the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It’s not the drunkenness or debauchery or “Girl’s Gone Wild” atmospherics that I miss; it is the cultural and social affects that I miss. The Zulus, the Mardi Gras Indians, the dogs in the Barkas Parade, and the neighborhood-centric goofiness of the St. Anne’s Parade. These are the things I long to see. And thankfully, nola.com provides me with photos and video to give me a glimpse into what those there are experiencing.

Mardi Gras Indian, February 2013.

Mardi Gras Indian, February 2013.

One of the things I used to put me in the spirit was the Times-Picayune’s JacksonSquareCam. Right now it probably shows people milling about and getting their palms read in the plaza between the Cathedral and Jackson Square, but during Mardi Gras it was abuzz with costumed revelers. And even from the distance of the camera, some appeared threatening and many of the rest, just plain weird and/or scary.

However, many of the photos and videos put on display by the Times-Picayune really capture the history and culture represented by Mardi Gras. And yeah, people are still having fun. Among my favorites, i.e. the ones that help me experience the celebration from afar:

The Skull and Bones Gangs — For some reason, these guys terrify me; however, there is a beautiful photo collection of the Northside Skull & Bone Gang waking up Treme on Mardi Gras day.

The Mardi Gras Indians processing in Treme under the I-10 overpass. I’ve seen it on St. Joseph’s Night, but not during Mardi Gras. One day. Here are photos and a video.

One of the things I’d most want to experience is thew history and tradition of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, 104 years old and going strong.

The Mardi Gras Day reopening of Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge by Kermit Ruffins.

To witness the neighborhood spectacle that is the St. Anne Parade that stumbles through the Marigny.

OK, I have to finally admit it. I have found a krewe that surpasses the 610 Stompers: the Laissez Boys Social and Leisure Club.

And, finally the ceremonial NOPD sweep of Bourbon Street at midnight after Mardi Gras.

I love it from afar, but one day I will actually experience it.

Leaving Ordinary Time Tuesday, Feb 21 2012 

Today is Mardi Gras. The end of Carnival. The end of Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time?

The Roman Catholic Church recognizes two stretches of Ordinary Time during their liturgical calendar. The first runs from the end of the Christmas Season, Epiphany (January 6th) up to Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten Season. The second is longer and less eventful, running from the end of Pentecost (the end of Eastertide) up to the Saturday before the beginning of Advent, the four-week period leading up to Christmas and the beginning of the liturgical year. In the grand scheme of things, the first is definitely more interesting than the second.

The first span of Ordinary Time, especially in places that celebrate Carnival or Mardi Gras, is anything but Ordinary. The time is filled with masked balls, King Cake parties, and eventually the festivities, feasting and parades leading up to Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday/Pancake Day. Take your pick depending upon your local tradition.

In New Orleans, Ordinary Time ends exactly at midnight on Mardi Gras. It is so important that the police clear Bourbon Street, arresting those who persist in carrying their partying over into the early hours of Ash Wednesday. Nothing is left to chance or inebriated, self control. It. Is. Over.

Italian-American Marching Club Parade, Bourbon St., March 2007.

The curtain closes.  In a season which recognized Christ’s 40 days in the desert, those seeking the fasting, prayer and penance of the Lenten season go to church to receive Palm Sunday’s recycled palm fronds in the form of ashes. A new season. A new holy season has begun.

But there are loopholes. While in past centuries believers gave up meat, eggs and dairy, during Lent, today’s Catholics must only give up meat on the Fridays. But these restriction, too, may be waived if St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th), St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th), or the Annunciation (March 25th) chance to fall on a Friday. Then, dioceses may choose to wave the Fast. And that is important in New Orleans, where St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day are important for Irish and Italian/African-American residents, respectively. In a span of a few days, St. Patrick’s parades, St. Joseph’s parades and altars, and Mardi Gras Indian processions will come and come. And while the religious connections may be tenuous, they are extremely important in their respective communities.

Uptown Indian Parade, March 20, 2011.

So, while the NOPD might clear the Quarter at midnight following Mardi Gras, the parades, the parties, and the beads continue, albeit at a slower pace.

Mardi Gras Miscellany Wednesday, Feb 15 2012 

OK, I’ll be arriving in New Orleans three weeks, one day and 21 hours from now, not that anyone is counting. In the meantime, there is a lot going on in the Crescent City. A few days after the Grammy Awards, a few days before Mardi Gras; well, things are popping and in a blaze of randomness, I’ll try to capture it, in keeping with the season, without adding any unnecessary structure.

  • Rebirth Brass Band returns from the Grammy Awards — After nearly thirty years of producing great music, Rebirth scored their first Grammy for best regional roots album. Kermit Ruffins, one of the band’s founders, the Baby Boyz Brass Band, and other friends and musicians, greeted the band as they arrived at the Louis Armstrong International Airport. Here’s the video.

    Rebirth Brass Band receiving the Grammy Award.

  • King Cake Crown awarded — for the last few weeks, Judy Walker, food editor for the Times-Picayune has led a team of king cake tasters throughout the New Orleans region to find the finest Carnival-season confection. The judges visited six bakeries that were picked from over 20,000 reader votes. nola.com provided videos from visits to the six bakeries, including: Gambino’s; Haydel’s; Manny Randazzo’s; Nonna Randazzo’s; Randazzo’s Camellia City; and Sucre. All bakeries put forward three King Cakes except for Sucre, which makes only one. The six top cakes were pitted against one another and the top three were separated by but 1.5 points. The winner, announced today was Manny Randazzo’s pecan praline king cake. A celebration ensued at the bakery.
  • New Galactic album — Galactic, the great New Orleans funk/rock band has a new album, Carnivale Electricos, coming out on Mardi Gras Day. Since the whole concept is a reworking of classic Mardi Gras tunes, it seems cruel to make us wait until the season is over. I have heard snippets, but not the whole album. Thankfully, Conan O’Brien and Team Coco are providing a full album stream for the album. For a listen, go here.
  • New Orleans City Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor, 1992

    An Integrated Mardi Gras — And to all of this frivolity, let’s add a bit of history. Twenty years ago, City Councilor Dorothy Mae Taylor had the audacity to force old-time Mardi Krewes to abandon the racism and sexism that they represented. And while jail time was dropped as part of the ordinance, the new regulations  forced old-time krewes Comus and Momus off the streets. Rex and Proteus agreed to the new regulations and continue to parade. According to columnist James Gill, Taylor should receive credit for making Mardi Gras krewes more color-blind and the season as a whole, an all embracing celebration. It is good not to forget such achievements.

King Cake: “Yeah, there’s an app for that!” Friday, Dec 30 2011 

The tradition of serving King Cake as part of the New Orleans carnival season dates back to the 18th Century. The baked confection, which contains a trinket (often a plastic baby) or dried bean, has been decorated with purple, green, and gold sugar or icing since those colors became a part of Mardi Gras in the 19th Century. It is proper fare anytime from Epiphany (January 6th) through Mardi Gras. And you’d think the tradition could just rest with that, but you would be wrong.

King Cake from Haydel's, Super Bowl Sunday, February 2010.

For years, former New Orleans residents could have a King Cake shipped anywhere from a number of New Orleans area bakeries. The packages usually contain the cake, Mardi Gras beads and trinkets, and perhaps even a music cd. Most of those bakeries have websites where you can order your little piece of Carnival and increasingly, you can find Haydel’s,   various Randazzo bakeries, and others on Facebook.

Randazzo’s Camellia City Bakery has taken taken the King Cake tradition and social media to the next level. This year the bakery has launched an interactive King Cake app — King Me! So, if you feel the need to order a customized King Cake using your smartphone or tablet, you’re in business!

Yes, a new tradition for Carnival!


On the Twelfth Day of Christmas…and Beyond Thursday, Jan 6 2011 

King Cake, Super Bowl Party, 2010

For most Americans, the Christmas tree was banished to the curb over a week ago; and in many stores, Valentines and boxes of chocolates have replaced tinsel and candy canes. Nevertheless, in much of Christendom, today, January 6th, marks the end of festivities. And to think of it, the symbolism of the Epiphany – the presentation of the newborn baby to the Magi – has more gift-giving relevance than a bunch of sheep surrounding a manger. Regardless, for most of us, the holiday season has quietly come to a close.

Except, that is, in places like New Orleans. For them, January 6th marks the close of the Christmas season, but simultaneously the beginning of the Carnival season. From the first “King Cake” on the Twelfth Night (see “An Epiphany”), Carnival builds from parties and balls into the crescendo of beads, floats, and beer that is Mardi Gras. And this year, with Mardi Gras falling on March 8th, the pre-Lenten celebration is longer than usual.

This is not to say that the next two months will be filled with drunkenness and debauchery. Just as people who remain on Bourbon Street are under the mistaken impression that they have experienced New Orleans, Carnival is much more textured, traditional, and family-oriented than the national media or “Girls Gone Wild” videos suggest.

Beads along St. Charles Ave., March 2008

Sure, folks in southern Louisiana seldom run from good fun, but the lion’s share of the balls, cotillions, parties, and other activities take place in neighborhoods and suburbs not called the French Quarter. Most parades pass along broad avenues where families set out lawn chairs and barbeques on the grassy medians (called “neutral ground”) so that they can make a day of it. Tourists generally miss the formal balls, the Mardi Gras Indians, and earlier parades, and likewise, miss the point.

The Carnival celebration is the product of the city’s traditions — religious, social, and ethnic. And if you know the people, you also know that such traditions are guarded with a certain ferocity.  To suggest to them that drunken lunkheads or the baring of breasts is part of Mardi Gras tradition, would be like praising FEMA or inviting BP to a beach party. Public ritual, borne of generations, is tradition; bad behavior is not.

So when you see the national news coverage of the festivities, rest assured that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

New Orleans Seventy Years Ago: In Living Color Saturday, Nov 13 2010 

In the last couple of days I’ve come across a couple of fascinating short films about New Orleans. They were produced a few months apart in 1940 and 1941 and both are in color.

The first is a short documentary that James A. Fitzpatrick made for MGM. The beginning is missing, but the rest of it seems to be intact. It was made as part of the “Travel Talk” series, but comes off more as a social studies lesson. A lot of focus on the the Mississippi and shipping. Great scenes of Cafe du Monde,  the Roosevelt Hotel, and the “new” Charity Hospital. The shots of bustling Canal Street, when compared to the present, are rather sad. Not surprisingly, after viewing the short, you wouldn’t know that New Orleans including Bourbon Street or working class neighborhoods. You can view it on YouTube.

The other was made a few months later during the Mardi Gras celebration in late February 1941. The film quality and color are quite remarkable. There is no sound, but music featuring George Lewis and Johnny Dodds provides appropriate musical accompaniment. It includes a children’s krewe and the first female krewe (Venus). Alas, it would be the last Mardi Gras celebration until after World War II. You can view it here.

Who Dat? Nobody! Redemption, at last. Monday, Feb 8 2010 

I don’t think there has ever been an American city that could have as much going on as once as New Orleans. And this is a city that thrives on special occasions.

OK, first of all, this is the first big weekend of Mardi Gras parades and celebrations. Then there is this election to choose a successor to Ray Nagin. So, let’s throw in a little thing called the Super Bowl  for the neer-do-well local team — just to make it interesting.

So, Monday has dawned. New Orleans has a new mayor. Multiple opponents. No run-off, First white mayor in 32 years, but one who received a majority of the African-American votes against a black opponent. It helps that the new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, is the well-connected son of the last white New Orleans Mayor, “Moon” Landrieu.

Then there’s this little thing called Mardi Gras. Parade times, along with mass schedules had to be rearranged to accommodate the Super Bowl. What a pain. The normal parades took place, although crowds were a little thinner than usual. Sunday parades included one of my favorite, the Krewe of Barkus parade, themed: “The Dogs Go Barking In.”

BUT, and I must repeat, BUT, the Super Bowl and the Saint’s definitive victory is the exclamation point on the weekend, if not, in fact, that of an entire decade. It’s as if the remaining water left from Katrina has been drained from the streets of New Orleans. The city is back. The people are looking forward. The sadness is over. If the Saints can overcome four decades of football futility, the city can overcome four decades of decline.

This is a time for the city to celebrate. But what this may represent, is a far more significant reason for New Orleans to celebrate. It is back! Big time.

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