New Orleans is among the world’s most notable Mardi Gras celebration locations, having a regional history of parades and parties that goes back more than 300 years.
Coinciding with the observance of the Roman Catholic tradition of Lent, the Tuesday prior was set aside as a time to enjoy the foods and pleasures of life before the weeks of fasting and reflection leading up to Easter.
The first recorded celebration was commemorated in 1699 with the landing of French explorers — brothers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville — as they stepped onto the shore of present-day New Orleans, christening their landing site as the Point du Mardi Gras.
Since then, traditions have morphed and mingled to produce one of the greatest events of revelry, which is now a legal holiday in Louisiana. The many preparations are elaborate and often decadent as thousands of visitors jam into the city’s historic French Quarter to party, parade and imbibe in copious amounts of food and drink.
During the 12-day period leading up to Mardi Gras, 70 parades roll through the area. An 18-float procession of a 450-member krewe can feature more than 75 units. When band members, dance groups, clowns and motorcycle squadrons are added, the number of participants often totals more than 3,000.
Masks were first worn during Mardi Gras celebrations, which bring together people from all walks of life, to allow wearers to escape society and class constraints. When wearing a mask, carnival-goers were free to mingle with whatever class they desired and keep their reputations untarnished.
Today, wearing masks during Mardi Gras is tradition. Law requires float riders to wear masks, however, in keeping with the mystery and tradition. Many krewes never reveal the true identities of their kings or queens.
For more than 130 years, Mardi Gras “throws” have been part of the festivities. Long beads, short beads, sparkly beads, beads with medallions, beads that light up and old-fashioned glass beads all add to the fun.
For generations, family-owned restaurants have been the crown jewels of the celebration. Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s, Antoine’s Restaurant and Galatoire’s Restaurant all have rich histories and are part of Mardi Gras itself.
Brilliant floats, one-of-a-kind costumes and, of course, very colorful people combine with wonderful jazz tunes that emanate from restaurants and bars all around the city. The boisterous festivities create a Carnival-like experience that makes revelers think they are no longer the United States at all.
Mardi Gras and Louisiana boasts a mixture of English, French and Creole traditions that make for a unique blend of culture found nowhere else.
Mardi Gras even has a real family connection to Las Vegas. Lola Pokorny, owner of Lola’s – A Louisiana Kitchen, has deep roots in Louisiana. She was born in New Orleans and, as a child, attended many Mardi Gras celebrations.
“I remember sitting on my daddy’s shoulders as a little girl on Bourbon Street, watching the floats go by,” said Pokorny, who is very well known amongst renowned New Orleans generational culinary families.
“Mardi Gras is about the fat; being able to eat the fat prior to Ash Wednesday. Everyone just hangs out because, for 40 days after, you are going to have to tame yourself.
“Many of my dishes have been passed down through my family for generations. My shrimp rémoulade is a New Orleans classic dressed in a traditional rémoulade sauce and served on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce. And my mama’s red beans and rice is slow-cooked with andouille and smoked kielbasa,” she added.
“We celebrate Mardi Gras in a big way at both of my (restaurant) locations and, of course, support the New Orleans Saints,” she said with a giggle.
Pokorny’s Mardi Gras celebrations are as authentic as you can get — especially because they come from a New Orleans native.