Water droplets beat against the bedroom window, which framed a gray sky that poured all day into the evening. But the smell of hot butter browning in a skillet and the buoyant sound of trumpets and keyboard from the radio lifted my mood. I’ve only experienced Mardi Gras through weekend parades leading up to Fat Tuesday. But not the evening often touted on the news as an occasion of unabashed revelry and regrettable drunkenness.
“This must be a nostalgic time for you, isn’t it?” I asked my boyfriend Charles while he browned the French toast in a melted layer of what he calls “fake butter,” a cholesterol-free alternative to butter that I try to keep in his fridge should we decide to treat ourselves to a heavier brunch. I thought he was going to reminisce about stumbling out of the Napoleon House after having had too many beers or talk about the things he and his high school buddies did to get girls to catch their beads.
But instead, he prepared for Fat Tuesday as though it were Christmas. Reminding me weeks in advance to keep the evening free. Pulling out plastic beads to wear to work or offer his daughters. Interspersing the weekends before Mardi Gras with meals containing some variation of grits and cheese, a heavy cream sauce, and way too much butter for the sensibilities of a girl who practiced portion control with a kitchen scale. His shameless use of animal fat was both horrifying and endearing. If a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, he reciprocated by spending equal time over the stove to cook his way to mine.
“It mostly reminds me of the stuff we did as a family,” he said. He wore his New Orleans Saints sweatshirt to breakfast. I imagined the dinner parties his parents must have had this time of year in their one-story brick home on Manchester just blocks from Lake Pontchartrain. “We’d get up at the crack of dawn. Mom would pack a cooler and we’d make our way to St. Charles Avenue to get a good spot on the parade route.” He and his brother would carry the cooler up the steps of the bleachers, his mother in a woven visor and his father, in a suit, disliking the idea of losing a day at work but warming to the visible excitement of his kids. They would sip soda and chew on potato salad as they watched the Krewe of Zulu and Rex sweep the southern sky with vibrant feathered costumes and shiny beads.
The last time I went to New Orleans, I accompanied Charles to his father’s memorial, a gathering at the New Orleans Museum of Art to honor the late history professor at Tulane who gave so much to the community through his activism and through founding the Amistad archives, especially at a time when kids on the playground who called Charles a “nigger lover” went unpunished.
But I fell in love with New Orleans months before that visit and even before the summer writing class I took at Tulane a few years ago. Taking the class was just an excuse to revisit the small streets where wild fern sprang from the crevices of colonial apartments and hung from the wrought-iron balconies between pots of banana leaves and jasmine. I missed how every window trickled with the hot moisture of early autumn in New Orleans. I missed the lush dining rooms where I soaked my tongue in Creole sauces and surrendered to the horns whose notes danced above a thumping bass and rollicking piano. I missed the St. Charles streetcar that saved my feet the walk from my hostel on uptown Carondelet to the French Quarter. I missed the palm readers in Jackson Square selling fortunes to the curious and lonely.
It was easy to be charmed in a city where ‘love’ and ‘baby’ are terms of endearment used when speaking to strangers in the grocery line, and the bartenders and shop owners make you feel like family. It is easy to be taken by the elegant mixture of refined hospitality and carnival wildness. Although New Orleans is built on soft ground, surrounded by water and mercilessly weathered by the elements, there is something to honor about the generations of families who made the city and Louisiana their lifelong home and who nurture a culture and sense of community unlike any other.
So, on Fat Tuesday I dismissed the voice of my all-too-Californian proclivities and set aside conscious eating for a different kind of conscious eating. Conscious of the significance of fried oysters, remoulade sauce, bacon-wrapped everything, mindful that every recipe is a product of generations of stories, and aware that Mardi Gras is a day to admire New Orleans’—and my boyfriend’s—unconditional devotion to flavor.
We couldn't spend the evening of Mardi Gras at home. I wanted to hear live instruments and fill up on raw oysters and bread pudding. And he wanted a rich and messy meal that he wouldn't have to worry about cleaning up after enjoying. So we settled on a Mardi Gras party at a local restaurant on the peninsula offering $1 jello shots, fried chicken and blackened catfish specials, and a Zydeco band downstairs. And after his second helping of scotch and my earnest attempt at finally gaining admission to the “clean plate club,” the Zydeco band’s carefree strings filled the basement of the restaurant and nudged our legs until we let the music into our bodies. And we danced despite the fact that our dollar doesn’t go as far, despite the waters that washed his childhood house away, and despite the fact that we know God will one day do it again... because when the waters subside and the fires burn out, we will still make art, still make music, and still get up and dance.
Melissa Josue is a San Francisco-based journalist and traveler who has written for both online and print publications and believes that travel writing is much more than about exposing a destination; it's about conveying the transformative experience of displacement, and drawing other travelers to the people and places that have deepened her sense of wonder. Melissa serves as the media and communications director for KAYA, a Filipino American grassroots organization centered on political empowerment and leadership development. She and her sister, Rosie, are contributing to YourLifeIsATrip.com with a series of pieces called THROUGH BABAE EYES: JOURNEYS WITH THE JOSUE SISTERS. The word Babae means “woman” in the Filipino language.