Mardi Gras arrives early this year on Feb. 13. This may not mean a lot locally but in the South, especially in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, it means Mardi Gras season — Carnival — is considerably shorter than it has been in recent years. Mardi Gras is always the day before Ash Wednesday, which falls 46 days before Easter, which in turn is based on the first full moon after the spring equinox. The date changes every year.
But the season of Mardi Gras always begins on the same date, Jan. 6, known variously as King’s Day, Twelfth Night and Epiphany. In New Orleans, it’s the day of the first of dozens of Mardi Gras parades, and it is also the day locals start wishing everyone “Happy Mardi Gras.” There are events all over town, prior to the two kick-off parades — Krewe de Jeanne D’Arc, and the Phunny Phorty Phellows — in which 40 guys commandeer the St. Charles streetcar for drinking and general merriment and mayhem.
Bakeries and grocery stores display stacks of King’s Cakes throughout the season and, as the actual day of Mardi Gras itself draws close, the number of parades picks up. It is impossible to see them all, but some of the best — Krewe de Barkus and Krewe de Vieux, to name two favorites — take place well before the final day. These parades are attended mostly by locals and visitors from nearby. It is really only the final parades through the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday itself that are the raucous drunken affairs that TV reports inevitably cover.
News programs typically focus their Mardi Gras coverage on New Orleans, but if you want to explore the true roots of the season, you must head to Mobile, Alabama, where a visit to the Carnival Museum is both delightful and educational. The genesis of America’s Mardi Gras celebrations is in Mobile, with the first one taking place in 1703. The regalia of the 50 families — 25 African-American, 25 Caucasian — that make up what we can call, casually, Mardi Gras royalty are astonishingly gorgeous, with flowing trains made new each year, though often with a section of previous trains worked in to the new design. One train currently on display has 12,000 crystals, each one sewn on by hand, which is required of costumes: No machine sewing!
An interesting tradition of Mardi Gras in Mobile is the throwing of Moon Pies, which has been part of the celebration for nearly a century. Colorful Mardi Gras beads, masks and trinkets fly from the floats of dozens of parades, just as they do in New Orleans, but in Mobile, Moon Pies are essential. They are also popular throughout the Gulf region, wherever Mardi Gras is celebrated.
So, how do we celebrate Mardi Gras locally? You can have your own celebration simply by enjoying breakfast, lunch, beignets and cafe au lait at Healdsburg’s Parish Cafe (60 Mill St.). For the last several years, the Parish has hosted a Mardi Gras fete with live music by the Second Line Band, but they are passing this year, because of the ongoing construction of the Healdsburg roundabout, which is taking place nearly in the restaurant’s front yard.
No one seems to know when construction will be over, but there is good news on the near horizon for anyone who loves Cajun and Creole cuisine as created by Parish’s founder and chef, Rob Lippincott. A second location, in Santa Rosa on Fourth Street near Russian River Brewing Co., will be opening really soon — not in time for Mardi Gras but very likely before the end of Lent.