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Mardi Gras on The Other Side

by Kathleen Walls


Mardi Gras inevitably brings to mind the Big Easy but Louisiana's Other Side, Shreveport and Bossier City, put on quite a show for Fat Tuesday and the days leading up to it. The pace is a little more relazed but the fun just keeps rolling on.

The king cake

Most people just think of the parades but there is so much more to Mardi Gras than that. Take king cakes for instance. There is an entire history and tradition there. Officially, the Mardi Gras celebration begins on January 6, Kings Day or the Catholic feast of the Epiphany.

The tradition of the king cake commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. The season begins with the king cake party held on that day. The traditional cake was a simple ring of twisted brioche bread iced in purple, green and gold to reflect carnival colors. Inside is a small plastic baby. Through the years the cake has evolved to a more elaborate cream or fruit filled pastry. The colors and the baby remain the same. The cake is sliced into exactly the number of pieces as there are guests at the party. Whoever gets the baby is king or queen and needs to buy the cake for next week's party. The parties continue until Mardi Gras day.

Making a king cake at Julie Anne's Bakery

Julie Anne's Bakery in Shreveport had made a reputation in over a decade of creating these traditional delicacies. So when I got chance to watch one actually made I jumped at the chance. It looked so artistic. The backer rolled out the dough into a rectangle about 20 by 10 inches and maybe a half inch thick. She then spread it with cream filling and some fruit, cherries in this case. Then she rolled it up tightly and curled it into a oval shaped circlet. From the underside, she gently inserted the baby. She then places a small square of dough to seal the place where the ends met and smoothed it gently. Now it was ready to go into the oven. When it emerged and cooled, a white creamy icing was placed on the top. this was sprinkled with sugar dyed to green, gold and purple. Of course the tasting is the best part.

The float stocking party

Another tradition people often never think about is stocking the float. The night before the parade the krewe meets at eh place where the floats have been built or assembled to fill them with all the goodies they will toss out the next day: beads, cups, stuffed toys, doubloons and assorted trinkets.

 

How appropriate, a float depicting a centaur

Naturally the event becomes a celebration in its own right. It's a big free party where everyone eats drinks and makes merry. Visitors begin begging beads and the krewe complies. Everyone young and old enjoys it. The family dog often comes along for this part of the celebration. Less chance of getting stepped on here than in the excitement of the actual parade (More about the four legged celebrants later) We were invited to attend the float loading party for the Krewe of Centaur. Aside from the festivities, what a wonderful chance to see the floats while parked instead of moving past.

 

Some of the royal costumes

The pageantry and costumes deserve recognition and that is just what they get at two museums in Shreveport. The Krewe of Gemini Mardi Gras Museum maintains the largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes in the northern hemisphere and second largest in the world. Mary Louise Stansell, the director, for the past three years, is very knowledgeable as her husband has been captain twice and she has been a duchess and now has her eye on that position in the near future. She explained about the krewes. "We have about 396 members. The Krewe of Gemini started in 1989. We meet every month. This year's theme is 'Blues.' The Captain, usually elected for only one year, decides on the royalty and the theme and the title of each of the 30 floats."

Some more costumes of royalty

Mardi Gras in Louisiana is big business. Mary Louise discussed the cost of the operation. "They spend over $300,000 all together for each parade and each member is responsible for his or her own throws. Most people spend around $12,000 for their throws. The ball costs about $7,000. Royalty would make about four trips to New Orleans for fittings. Ropyalty would consist of the king, queen and three sets of dukes and duchesses representing Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana."

This year, her float members will be wearing blue satin tights, blue ears, and blue masks. The costumes will never be the same again. Every year it changes. The costumes on display attest to the attention to detail and the seriousness of the members.

Still more colorful costumes

The krewe does lots of other charitable activities. They visit all of the local children's wards at hospital and stop at each room in costume and perform a mini-tableau. Many of the krewes are related to their profession or interest. Like the Krewe of Justinian is composed of members of the legal profession and The Krewe of Aesclepius is made up of members of the medical profession. The reason Mary Louise chose to join Gemini, "It's all like one big family."

It's also a big boost to the economy. An estimated 400,000 turn out for the area's two biggest parades. A 2007 study for the Shreveport-Bossier Convention & Tourist Bureau shows out-of-town visitors spend $17 million here.

King of Centaur costume at Barnwell

Barnwell Garden and Art Center also devotes one wing of the museum to Mardi Gras exhibits this time of year. Their displays come from all of the other krewes. The costumes are equally beautiful just not as plentiful. The Barnwell hosts the ending event of Mardi Gras season. All of the parade krewes meet on the Texas Street Bridge where a priest blesses the groups and distributes ash signifying the end of Mardi Gras and the beginning of Lent.

Their conservatory is filled with beautiful tropical plants which are equally colorful as the costumes. Petey is their resident koi that eventually outgrew his tiny fishbowl and now has his own home at the Barnwell.
King and Queen of Centaur

The Parade of the Krewe of Centaur is an amazing spectacle. We were invited into the Mardi Gras Bash tent where a zydeco band was playing and a buffet line distributed food and drink. The King and Queen of Centaur made an appearance. they danced and posed for photos with the guests then left to lead the parade.

One of the Centaur Floats

The parade was a spectacle that must be witnessed to do it justice. It is a medley of music, color, sounds and even the scent of food wafting in from the crawfish sellers and other vendors along the riverbank. The marching bands all strut their stuff each striving to outdo all the others. The King 's float and then the Queen's sail by in all their glory. The rest of the floats are just as colorful. Spectators are screaming at the top of their lungs "Throw me something, Mister."

Note the beads tossed high in left corner

The beads and other throws sail forth out into the appreciative audience's waving hands. Some fly all the way to the rear of the crowd, some dropped into waiting hands almost touching the float's sides. Even busy as I was with shooting pictures, I caught my share.

 

I was lucky enough to be allowed to climb aboard and cling to the posts of a crawfish seller's rig. Just to my rear were huge metal bins of cooking crawfish. The particular smell of well-seasoned crawfish was ever-present. I sampled and they tasted as good as they smelled. The owner told me of the importance of using real Louisiana crawfish as opposed to Chinese imports. I have tasted both and I heartily agree. Restaurants that mix the two to save a few bucks and pass them off as Louisiana crawfish should be shut down. Like the parade and the Mardi Gras season, some things must be authentic.

A child pets one of the dogs while her own four legged friend looks on

The Krewe of Barkus and Meoux Mardi Paws allows our four legged friends to get into their own celebratory spirit. There were also a few miniature horses and rabbits. I have to admit the lone feline participant I met did not seem to be in a festive mood. It appeared in more of a "go home and leave me alone mood." However those of us who are owned by cats understand that they would consider it beneath their dignity to stoop to entertain mere humans as they are convinced we should be devoting all our time to caring for feline needs not gallivanting around with dogs and other lesser species. Who knows? Maybe Kitty really was enjoying the attention and just not letting on. No one can figure cats out.

 

The pink poodle

No question the dogs were eating up all the fanfare. Sure, a few looked embarrassed by the silly costume their human had made them wear but the grateful petting from kids along the route made up for that. What dog can resist a friendly pat and people telling them "you're so cute?"

And what fun-loving person can resist a wonderful Mardi Gras celebration. That is what you will find on Louisiana's Other Side.

 

For more info:

www.shreveport-bossier.org

www.barnwellcenter.com

www.animalkrewe.org

www.kreweofcentaur.org

www.kreweofgemini.com

www.mardigrasmuseum.org

www.centenary.edu/meadows

www.julieannesbakery.com/

 

Provided by American Roads Travel Magazine - Visit American Roads Travel Magazine website.

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