New Orleans: Mardi Gras and More
30 BEFORE 30 - Celine Novenario () - March 13, 2011 - 12:00am

My visit to New Orleans was born out of a yearning to partake in the unbridled debauchery that is Mardi Gras. This period of merriment preceding the austerity of Lent has been a longstanding tradition in New Orleans as far back as the 18th century. My trip down south showed me, however, that this vibrant festival is just the gravy on that wonderful heap of goodness that is the Big Easy.

Reflections Of A Storied Past

This crescent-shaped city on the banks of the Mississippi is quite possibly the most unique in the United States. Its distinct architecture is a reflection of its colorful, multicultural past.

A former colony of both France and Spain, and a crucial port in the Atlantic slave trade between Europe and South America, New Orleans developed a Creole style of architecture that is a melange of French, Spanish, African and Caribbean traditions.

It is most evident in the French Quarter, with its Creole townhouses, courtyards, and intricate wrought iron balconies.

The affluent Garden District, built by Americans flush with cash after the Louisiana purchase, is a showcase of architectural styles: Greek revival, Victorian, French Second Empire and Queen Anne, to name a few. Americans created this district after being shut out of the French Quarter by the French populace, and the myriad architectural styles are said to reflect the clash between two groups struggling for control over New Orleans’ thriving commerce.

Cochon’s fried alligator drizzled with chili garlic aioli is hopelessly addicting.

Even the cemeteries in New Orleans, with tombs built above the ground in a variety of styles, tell many tales.

Take a guided tour through St. Louis Cemetery #1 to see everything from infamous voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s purported tomb to the newly constructed pyramid that will be actor Nicolas Cage’s final resting place.

Soul Food

With its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico’s bounty and strong ties to France and Spain, New Orleans developed a rich and distinct culinary tradition. The most famous among its many treats is the beignet, a square-shaped fried doughnut first brought to these shores by the French colonizers. Beignets are no longer common in France but travelers and locals still flock to New Orleans’ Cafe du Monde to indulge in fluffy pillows of dough dusted in powdered sugar and chicory-spiked cafe au lait.

A visit to Evelyn’s Place in the French Quarter is a must for the hearty gumbo and a riotous chat with its still raffish 80-year-old owner Frank.

Jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace, meanwhile, is the perfect precursor to exploring the Garden District. Its three-course brunch menu offers Southern delights such as turtle soup, shrimp ‘n grits and Creole bread pudding souffle.

For a taste of contemporary New Orleans cuisine, do not miss Cochon, hailed as one of 10 restaurants that count in the United States by the New York Times.

Here, the Louisina cochon is the star of the show: slow-braised, shredded suckling pig served on a bed of turnips and cabbage and sinfully topped with crisp cracklings.

Cochon’s roasted Gulf oysters are succulent and soaked in flavor, the fried alligator with chili garlic aioli hopelessly addicting, and the braised spicy pork ribs with pickled watermelon impossible to forget long after you’ve had your last hurricane on Bourbon Street.

A visit to New Orleans is not complete without a stop at Cafe du Monde for piping hot beignets and chicory-spiked cafe au lait.

Off The Beaten Path

If time permits, consider some day trips just outside of New Orleans to get a better feel of Louisiana’s history and culture.

We didn’t have enough time for the Plantation Tour that provides a glimpse of life in the Antebellum South but managed to steal away for an afternoon on the Munson Swamp Tour.

This mom and pop outfit took us on an intimate journey through the family-owned Chacahoula Swamp, where wily raccoons, majestic birds, and baby alligators roamed as large alligators hibernated for winter.

Our chatty Cajun guide, with his rapid-fire stories and jokes, proved as big an attraction as the wildlife, giving us a feel for the easy, fun-loving Cajun way of life.

Should you decide to go on this tour, make sure to stop by Wilson’s Kountry Korner before heading back into the city. Their swamp fries, a concoction of fries, gravy and two kinds of grated cheese, will haunt you for months. 

Mardi Gras

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New Orleans native Chris Rose describes the Big Easy’s most famous event as such: “Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.”

Fuel up for your walk in the Garden District with the Commander’s Palace shrimp ‘n grits.

To experience the spirit of Mardi Gras at its most authentic, we timed our trip to coincide with the Krewe du Vieux Carre parade.

Traditionally the first parade for Mardi Gras season, it is the only one that rolls through the French Quarter.

It is simultaneously the most risqué and traditional of all Mardi Gras parades with its politically satirical floats and a generous dose of adult of humor. This year’s floats mercilessly poked fun at the BP oil spill, Sarah Palin’s Tea Party movement and Wikileaks, among others.

Instead of canned music blaring out of speakers, New Orleans’ best brass and jazz bands come out for this parade. We had the time of our lives begging for beads and trinkets, mugging for photos with costumed revelers, and shimmying to all that jazz. While there is certainly more to New Orleans than Mardi Gras, nothing highlights the Big Easy’s joie de vivre better than this colorful season.

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