A quiet New Orleans Mardi Gras.
My teenage daughter and I just got back home after four nights in New Orleans with our friends from Ohio, Jenn and Lindsey. Yes, it’s February. Yes, it’s Mardi Gras season. No, there were no crowds.
We arrived in New Orleans last Thursday evening, and when I posted on Facebook that we were spending the weekend there, I started receiving messages from friends in Mobile and other areas in the Deep South, saying, “You know the city is shut down, right?” I had done my homework, so I wasn’t alarmed by their messages. I knew bars were closed in Orleans Parish, and I knew lots of streets would be blocked off at night in the French Quarter, but I also knew the restaurants were open. Seriously…that’s all I needed to know: food is being served!
Back in the day, when I was in my 20s, it was fun to go to New Orleans for the nightlife. I enjoyed Pat O’s and Audubon Tavern II with friends. We enjoyed Hurricanes (the cocktail), Milk Punch, Dueling Pianos, and second-line parades. And then, as I grew older and became a full-fledged adult (whatever that is), I started to appreciate the food. Aside from the people and culture of the city, the food became what I looked forward to most, and when I lived in Mobile, Alabama, less than two hours from New Orleans, I found my favorite restaurants in the Big Easy and made regular jaunts over for dinner and Sunday brunch.
So when my friend from Ohio asked us to meet her and her teenage daughter there, I agreed immediately. It would be their first visit to New Orleans, so I tried to explain the culture, the city, and the cuisine beforehand. I told them how friendly everyone is. I told them how delicious the food is. We talked about the New Orleans brogue and the patois of the Cajuns. And I told them to be prepared for anything in New Orleans…because you never know what you’re gonna get! The city has lots of nicknames, one of which is “The City that Care Forgot.” That should tell you there can be lots of shenanigans. And come on…everyone has fun in New Orleans, right? It’s always crowded, right? It’s always boisterous and bawdy…especially during Mardi Gras, right?
In 2021, there is nothing boisterous and bawdy about the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans, thanks to COVID. Last year, lots of folks came down with the virus after visiting the city for Mardi Gras parades and other events. The city got some flack. So this year, the mayor headed it off at the pass. She shut down streets throughout the French Quarter. She ordered bars shut down in the parish. She had more police walking the streets, to keep folks from loitering. And she cancelled parades. I read where she said, “I’d rather do too much [to combat COVID] than too little.”
What I can tell you is that I have never seen this apocalyptic version of New Orleans before. It was quiet. It was calm. To top it all off, it was drizzly and overcast the whole time…and that can make any city look gray and dreary. New Orleans just wasn’t itself. The only time we encountered a crowd of any kind was when we decided to walk down to Cafe du Monde on Decatur Street one morning. There was a long line to purchase coffee and beignets, but it was outside, so we ordered our confectioner’s sugar-covered breakfast and sat in an outdoor area to dine…promptly dropping powdered sugar all over ourselves while pigeons darted around our feet and under our table, waiting for us to drop a crumb or two. In fact, the pigeons were likely the biggest crowd we saw on the whole trip! When I say it was “apocalyptic,” I mean it.
I had made reservations at all my favorite restaurants in advance, so when we arrived at each one, we were welcomed with open arms. They were thrilled to have the business, and I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to introduce my friends to New Orleans cuisine. In fact, we ate so much at so many fantastic restaurants that we found ourselves waddling through the city after each meal. Between meals, we checked out the Garden District, where lots of beautiful homes were decorated for “Yardi Gras,” or made to look like “house floats,” since the crewes weren’t parading this year. We also picked up a King Cake (or two) from a local bakery. I got the baby from the first cake, and my friend’s daughter got the baby from the second cake…meaning we will both have good luck this year. (This “good luck” theory was something I questioned when I fell down the stairs at Galatoire’s later that night, but my friend insisted it was likely that King Cake baby that kept me from having a broken leg after the tumble. Go ahead and laugh…it’s a hilarious visual, I’m sure.) We washed down that King Cake with Daquiris we purchased from a drive-thru daiquiri bar in Metairie…and checked out some beautiful homes in the area (including a famous/notorious uncle’s house) while we were there.
On our last full day in town, we had brunch at a well-known restaurant in the garden district…a restaurant that is known for its carnival-like atmosphere. When we arrived, I was excited for my friends to experience it. We were lucky enough to get a great window table in the patio room, and honestly, the atmosphere was the most electric we had experienced since we got to town. We dined on local cuisine, and our desserts were incredible. We also had mimosas and indulged in some Brandy Milk Punch…a traditional New Orleans drink. And while we were at brunch, we struck up a conversation with the table next to us, where the ringleader was a local…a regular at the restaurant…a regular with a fun sense of humor and a welcoming personality. He sent Brandy Milk Punch shots to our table, and for a little while, even without the jazz trio that’s usually roaming through the restaurant, it felt like real New Orleans. My teenage daughter had experienced it before, but it was at that moment that I told our friends from Ohio, “This is how it’s supposed to feel in New Orleans.” Yes…the real New Orleans is welcoming, friendly, and happy…boisterous and bawdy…and we got a little taste of that at our Sunday Jazz Brunch…courtesy of a friendly doctor who splits his time between New Orleans and Savannah, a doctor who just wanted to have some Mardi Gras fun at Sunday brunch.
It was a nice reminder that New Orleans lives on, and Mardi Gras will be back in full force…likely better than ever…in years to come.
The people of New Orleans are tough, having survived Hurricane Katrina and lots more. They’re not going to let a virus get them down…well, maybe temporarily…but they’ll be back better than ever, no doubt.