Last month, IT Editor Janelle Nanos traveled to New Orleans to explore the culture and traditions of Mardi Gras. For four days, she spoke with the people behind the masks — the ones who help make the celebration happen — to get their stories and insider tips. She’ll be blogging about her experiences through February 24th, when the party culminates. Check back for more Mardi Gras Moments throughout the coming weeks.
On my first full day in town, I set out with a friend to wander the streets where different Mardi Gras celebrations take place. We headed first to the Tremé neighborhood, which is home to many of the city’s musicians, and is considered the major hub for the African-American festivities throughout the Mardi Gras season. (It’s also the location of the new HBO series currently in development, which is directed by David Simon of The Wire, that will focus on post-Katrina life in the city). Today the neighborhood feels very much in flux, and there are signs that is becoming increasingly gentrified. The mix of Creole and English homes that line the streets appear somewhat incongruous: some are brightly painted, while others remain blighted, cross-riddled, and left gutted by the hurricane. Sotheby’s signs are cropping up like mushrooms.
Tremé is historically known as the place where the Creole and Africans met, and there is a park in the center of the neighborhood that became known as Congo Square. It’s considered the ground zero of jazz, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the 18th century, Congo Square was the place where African slaves would meet on Sundays – the one day that they were not required to work – to reconvene with family and friends and celebrate through music and dancing. At the time, visitors would gather to watch the performances, which were unlike anything that anyone had seen. Today Congo Square is just one section of Louis Armstrong Park, a large stretch of land that abuts the French Quarter, which also houses the Municipal Auditorium, and the recently reopened Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts. Debuting with an all-star celebration this January after being damaged in the storm, the theater will now host the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the New Orleans Ballet Association, and the New Orleans Opera Association.
Arriving in Tremé in time for breakfast, we drove down Esplanade, its main thoroughfare, in search of a meal. The wide, tree-lined streets are one of my favorite things about the South, and many of the homes along this stretch have been converted to lovely B&B’s, including the Degas House, where the French Impressionist painter used to live, and the Lookout Inn in the nearby Bywater neighborhood, which has the witty “Who Died and Made you Elvis?” suite.
We ended up planning to grab a quick bite at Lil Dizzy’s Cafe
– but a small meal seems physically impossible there. Home to some of the city’s most famous Creole food — and some fantastic fried chicken — the restaurant was one of the spots that President Bush visited during the aftermath of Katrina. Chef Roslyn Malone has been cooking for 30 years and was there to serve the President. (She told me that she had her own Secret Service agent who made sure that she didn’t poison the food.) We ordered a breakfast of shrimp and grits, but barely made a dent in our bowls. Delicious for sure, the heaping helping was more than enough to take us through the rest of the day – and to our next stop: The Backstreet Cultural Museum.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Check back for more on the Museum and other Mardi Gras Moments throughout the coming weeks.
Past Mardi Gras Moments
[The Krewe of Zulu]
Photos: Janelle Nanos