King’s Whiskey and Queen’s Tea

11 01 2015

It begins on Twelfth Night, the Epiphany, the day the kings arrived with their gifts for the Christ child. Now centuries later, it’s the day the king cakes arrive and the Mardi Gras season begins. We cook it all into a season-long party down here in south Louisiana, where our religion, politics and culture simmer together in a big bubbling gumbo pot.

AAAahhhhh, king cake, that coffee-cake-like, oval shaped king cakeconfection, sprinkled with the season’s colors of purple, green and
gold. There’s a small plastic baby buried in a slice—to represent the baby Jesus, of course. The recipients of this gift know they must bring the next king cake to the next gathering.

It is a season of indulgence during the cold, wet, dark days of winter. It ends on midnight Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras day, and Lent begins. Lent, the season of sacrifice to remind us all of Christ’s sacrifice at Easter. Most people sacrifice sweets or alcohol for those 40 days, which just counter balances the indulgences of Mardi Gras.

The King’s Whiskey and the Queen’s Tea is a small local event connected to a small neighborhood parade that began 28 years ago. My wine-drinking friend, Queen T was this past year’s Queen. I joined her and the Southdown’s Krewe to celebrate the passing of the crown to a new Queen and King. (Here’s last year’s post about her coronation).

The event is held at the lovely, gracious home of the parade’s founder. No one thinks it odd that our host, a doctor, has a feathered hat on and is brandishing a sword while he makes pronouncements. The first announcement is that it is time for the men to go outside to build the bonfire. Inside the Krewe of Southdowns past Queens share poetic words of advice to the new Queen, all followed by a toast. This is the Queen’s Tea.

After the passing of the crown from last year’s Queen to the new, we join the men at the King’s Whiskey. Outside there is a large wooden throne overlooking a metal “chimney” into which dried and brittle Christmas trees are thrown to create a spectacular bonfire. There are about 60 trees that are burned one by one. That number has reached 200 in past years and the party has lasted until dawn.

There is generally a pronouncement as each tree is put into the fire and a bagpiper plays. While the sound of the bagpipe is mournful, the tunes he plays are not. We hear the theme from the old TV show, Bonanza, and “The Saints go Marching In,” to which many in the crowd sing to. Later drummers add their rhythmic beat to the night.

I was stuck by how ancient and primal the evening felt. Amongst the fun and frivolity, the courtly traditions harken back to a centuries-old European tradition of royalty. At the Queen’s Tea the words are spoken in a courtly fashion. The reign of past Queens are honored, as the new Queen becomes part of the lineage.

It was easy to imagine ancient bonfires that lit up the winter nights. We’ve always needed warmth, light and friendship to help us through dark times. The sound of the bagpipes, and the drums, and the explosion of heat that each tree created as it exploded into flames, gave a timeless feel to the night. It made me feel connected to long-gone souls who had the same kind of gathering. People have always gathered for the warmth of community on cold winter nights.

Cheers to the beginning of the Mardi Gras season and to the Krewe of Southdowns. And may I not eat too many slices of king cake!

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Mardi Gras Traditions

10 02 2014

From Old World to New
The Mardi Gras traditions harken back to the early days of our country when the area I live in was settled by the Spanish and then the French. The season began with a Ball on Twelfth Night—or King’s Night—in honor of the arrival of the three kings bearing gifts for the Christ child.

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In old New Orleans, they chose a King for the Twelfth Night Ball and in the King’s cake there was a bean or sometimes a jeweled ring. The lady who got the piece of cake with the token became the Queen, until the next week when there was another ball and new royalty was crowned. The parties and parades continued until Lent, when the revelry was given up for the 40 days before Easter. This tradition that began hundreds of years ago is still an important part of New Orleans and has now spread beyond the old city.

From New Orleans to Baton Rouge
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The Mardi Gras traditions of king cakes, balls and parades is something that has evolved in Baton Rouge in my lifetime. At a just-attended Mardi Gras Ball, I realized the pomp and circumstance that goes back to a bygone era is still present in today’s traditions.

The Ball I attended was a simple affair, as far as Mardi Gras Balls go. It grew out of a neighborhood parade started nearly 30 years ago. I grew up a few blocks away in a home similar to many on the parade route. A simple wood-frame house built before air conditioning, raised off the ground, with hard wood floors and a big front porch.

This family-friendly neighborhood night parade is still a simple event. Parents sit in lawn chairs on their front porches and let their kids catch the flying beads as they’re thrown off the homemade floats, though catching Mardi Gras beads brings out the kid in everyone. Years ago, this is the parade I brought my Brownie troop to after an afternoon spent making king cakes with purple, green and gold sugars for a cooking badge.

Queen Teresa and her royal consort, Thom

Queen Teresa and her royal consort, Thom

From Seattle to Baton Rouge
Teresa and Thom moved to Baton Rouge about 10 years ago from Seattle and we became friends not long after. They quickly assimilated to this land of king cakes, parades, parties, football, food, drink, friends and fun. They discovered this local parade and easily became a part of it. This year Teresa is Queen of the parade and Thom is her royal consort.

I am so glad that I was there for the celebration Ball and that these friends have become part of the Mardi Gras tradition. It was fun to watch the remnants of an old European royal tradition reimagined, without the class distinctions.

The King and Queen were announced and entered the decorated and festive room in their jeweled clothes and crowns with the sound of a bagpipe playing. They sat on a throne on a raised dais overlooking the room. Those who head the groups that build the different floats are announced and come to praise the royalty. They come bearing gifts (like pet treats for the royal pets). All those in attendance are dressed for the ball, whatever their definition of “dressed up” was. From the large ponytailed giant of a man dressed in a kilt with his black socks and dress shoes and Star Wars helmet, to the regal lady in a classic ball gown.

The King and Queen of Southdowns

The King and Queen of Southdowns

There is a grand silliness in the pageantry and no one takes it too seriously, other than wanting to seriously have fun. This is clearly shown in the group who called themselves “the Barbarians” who come dressed in leather and fur, a Viking-come-to-town attire.

This old Baton Rouge neighborhood has embraced the real meaning of neighbor and opened its doors to all and will let you be royalty for the season if that’s what you want. Mardi Gras has evolved over the centuries and it still celebrates the tradition it came from. This simple Southdown’s Mardi Gras Ball was a night of acceptance and celebration for all in attendance. As we say down here in south Louisiana, Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler, which means Let The Good Times Roll.





Parading

16 02 2013
Two guys walking abreast (that me and my buddy in the cleavage)

Two guys walking abreast (that me and my buddy in the cleavage)

It was a 
dark time growing up without king cake. I grew up in a time before
 Mardi Gras came to Baton Rouge. I’d heard about it as a kid and 
family friends would bring me exotic, glamorous beads from a far
off place. As a child New Orleans seemed much further away than 90 
miles and it was so foreign to where I lived. Even the accents of 
the people from there sounded funny.

That first experience didn’t 
happen for me ’till I got to college. My parents remained Mardi
 Gras virgins. But at some point in my young adulthood, a small
 parade began in the shadow of Louisiana’s huge phallic State
 Capital. Sure, it was a bunch of drag queens that 
liked to dress up and parade down the streets of the town’s oldest 
neighborhood, Spanish Town, but it was a parade. That little parade 
grew and grew and last year 100,000 came to catch the beads, or
 condoms, or white bread or whatever was being thrown off the 
homemade floats.

Governor Jindal was among many politicians skewered this year

Governor Jindal was among many politicians skewered this year

It is 
appropriate that a parade grew up organically in the shadow of
Louisiana politics. It’s the honoring of our corrupt and crazy
 political history that makes the parade so fun. Add sexual
 overtones to it all and it is a day that is so fun and hip and cool 
that Baton Rouge can only sustain that level of intensity for the 
day of the parade. The Spanish Town parade doesn’t try to be a big
 and glitzy New Orleans parade with it’s imported celebrities. The celebrities that are at the Spanish Town parade are likely to 
be the infamous politician who just got out of  jail. The
 floats look homemade because they are. Pictures are stapled to the
 sides that someone downloaded and printed on their office printer
 when the boss wasn’t looking. The paint is barely dry on others 
because they were hastily put together with a keg and an 
all-nighter.

costume copy

Even the colors are 
different. Instead of the traditional purple, green and gold, 
flamingo pink is the color that rules the day. People dress in the
ir reverence of the parade spirit and of course in pink. You can’t
 be too pink or too tacky. That drag queen spirit is still present 
in the deep marrow of the costumed revelers. Families are welcome, 
but this is an adult parade with pink penis popsicles sold by the 
same vendor selling pink cotton candy.

The hightlight of the parade 
is the lawnmower brigade—the Krewe of Yazoo. They parade like a 
marching band, but they’re all pushing their lawn mowers. And each 
year they have a choreographed performance. Last year they were 
zombies performing “Lawn of the Dead” to the music, Staying Alive.
 My favorite past performance may always be when they were the 
Mow-donnas.

The Grand Marshall and me

The Grand
Marshall and me

The Baton Rouge Spanish Town
 Mardi Gras Parade, a day of hilarity and friends and eating and
 drinking. It’s all the things I love about living here, all wrapped
 up with a big pink bow—just don’t ask where that bow has been!

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