Mardi Gras Celebrations Outside of New Orleans
Mardi Gras - or "Fat Tuesday" to those who don't speak French – is a festive opportunity to enjoy delicious food and celebratory merriment before the somber season of Lent begins. Traditionally, Mardi Gras falls one day prior to Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Lenten season leading up to Easter. While the festivity is known primarily as Mardi Gras in the U.S., international celebrations around the globe refer to it as Carnival (sometimes spelled "Carnivale" or "Carnaval," depending upon the locale).
New Orleans residents and tourists alike revel in the streets, wearing Mardi Gras masks adorned with sequins and feathers and feasting on rich foods while surrounded by beautiful floats and costumed characters. Beads are thrown, beverages are consumed, and NOLA gets a little bit rowdier and more colorful that it already is year 'round.
Although New Orleans hosts the biggest, most extravagant Mardi Gras celebration in the country, several other U.S. cities have adopted their own Mardi Gras traditions. If you can't get away to fabulous New Orleans, here are a few other spots where you can kick up your heels French Quarter-style without traveling too far from home!
Mobile: Home of the Oldest U.S. Mardi Gras Celebration
New Orleans may have the most well known Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S., but Mobile, Ala., boasts the nation's oldest, bringing nearly one million visitors to the city to partake in this fantastic spectacle. The city's Mardi Gras celebration is only one year younger than Mobile itself. Its first batch of parades and formal masked balls was held in 1703.
Dating back to colonial times, Mobile's Mardi Gras festivities are planned by individual "mystic societies," private social entities with secret membership. These mystic societies are comprised of members of Mobile's business, cultural, or ethnic communities. The venerable Mobile tradition of Mardi Gras and mystic societies survive to this day. In fact, both were the subject of a 2008 documentary film, The Order of Myths. While throwing beads, tokens, toys and candy from floats is an all-around Mardi Gras tradition, the throwing of iconic wrapped Moon Pie deserts originated in Mobile!
Pensacola: A Family-Friendly Festivity
The Florida panhandle city is host to one of the most family-friendly Mardi Gras festivals. Pensacola's slightly more subdued celebration is actually one of the oldest U.S. celebrations of Carnival, reaching back to 1874. The city's Krewes -- or small groups of organizers with histories and themes unto themselves -- band together to sponsor floats, entertainment, and masquerade balls. In addition to the more family-oriented nature of Pensacola's version of Mardi Gras, the city's celebration holds its parades and events the week before Fat Tuesday, beginning on a Friday night and culminating in the Sunday evening Krewe of Wrecks parade across Pensacola Beach.
San Francisco's Carnaval
In terms of local color and flavor, San Francisco rivals New Orleans. That's why it's no surprise that San Francisco has its own stellar Mardi Gras celebration each year. The Golden City's version of Carnaval takes place in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District, teeming with pageantry and personality. Whereas NOLA's version of Mardi Gras is held on the traditional date of the day before Ash Wednesday, San Fran's rendition of the celebration is held in the spring as a celebration of new life. (This year, San Franciso's Carnaval festival and parade will be held on May 24-25, 2014, during Memorial Day weekend.) Dancing, jazz bands, and the crowning of a Carnaval King and Queen are just a few of the festivities that make Carnaval a San Francisco attraction that should not be missed!
Mardi Gras in the City of Brotherly Love
To the north, Philadelphia has several Mardi Gras traditions that transplants a bit of New Orleans culture above the Mason-Dixon line. In 2014, a group of 40-plus jazz musicians known as the Wild Bohemians will perform their 30th Mardi Gras show at Philadelphia's World Café Live. The sounds of jazz, brass, and big band will permeate the Philadelphia air as beads are thrown and crowds get their groove on. Foodies unable to make a break for NOLA may find fine fare in Philadelphia at Catahoula, a restaurant and bar located at 775 S. Front Street. Catahoula serves up traditional Creole and Cajun dishes all year long, including crawfish bisque, Acadian gumbo, and shrimp remoulade.
Grandeur in Galveston
Galveston,Tex., just a stone's throw away from the state's largest city, Houston, plays host to yet another spectacular Mardi Gras celebration. Among some of the festivities planned for Galveston's 2014 Mardi Gras celebration are a Jolly Jester 5K(ish) run, with over 300 registered participants running in their finest Mardi Gras costumes; the Third Annual Zaniest Golf Cart Parade; and more. Philadelphia's famed brigade of costumed musicians, the Mummers, will also migrate to Galveston for the 29th time this year, performing in their adopted Texas stomping grounds and playing a role in the city's Mardi Gras celebration.
King Cakes: A Little Slice of New Orleans Mardi Gras … Wherever You Are!
Even if you're not able to find a Mardi Gras on your travels or in your backyard, there is one tradition that you can take home with you: King Cake. A Mardi Gras celebration staple, King Cake is a buttery gourmet pastry decorated in colored sugar or icing in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of green, gold, and purple. These colors symbolize the virtues of faith, power, and justice, respectively. The King Cake features a tiny plastic or ceramic baby figurine baked inside. The cake is served to party guests and, according to tradition, whoever receives the slice with the baby inside must host next year's gathering and purchase the traditional King Cake for guests to enjoy.
If your local bakery doesn't make King Cakes during the Mardi Gras season, there are several New Orleans bake shops that make King Cakes all year and ship them across the country for folks outside The Big Easy to enjoy. Try Haydel's Bakery, Randazzo's Camellia City Bakery, or Cannata's King Cakes -- to name just a few -- and enjoy a little slice of Mardi Gras no matter where your celebration takes you!