Mardi Gras is in full swing, and with it comes one of the most delicious holiday traditions: the king cake. This oval-shaped delicacy was first brought to New Orleans from France in 1870, and is sort of a hybrid coffee cake/French pastry. It’s brightly decorated with purple, green and gold frosting, resembling a jeweled crown, in honor of the Three Wise Men who visited the Christ Child on the Twelfth Night of Christmas (also known as the Epiphany).
A tiny plastic baby is hidden inside a large pizza pie-sized cake, and the lucky reveler who gets a bite of baby is crowned “King” for a day, and gets to host the party next year. Sounds like a perfectly good way to unexpected dental work, but it’s actually a huge honor. These folks take Mardi Gras seriously.
I’ve experienced Mardi Gras in New Orleans every way imaginable and can say with confidence that it is something you should do at least once in your life…perhaps two or three times because you’re not going to remember much. Tens of thousands line the streets throughout the Crescent City for parades (which seem to start every other hour) put on by different krewes. And the floats rival those of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day and Rose Bowl Parades. The “Super Krewes” — Bacchus, Endymion, Orpheus, Zulu and Rex — host the big parades in the peak time leading to Fat Tuesday. Ladies, you can expect to catch so many beads in the first ten minutes that you can keep your shirt tucked in your pants for the remainder of your trip.
As an outsider (read: non-Catholic tourist) who has been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras as an adult more times than I haven’t been, I have a few tips to share. Do as I say, not as I do:
Don’t have a rigid dining plan. This is not the trip to eat your way around New Orleans restaurants. I once moseyed into an alley bar and had the best chicken wings on the planet. No idea where it was or what the joint was called and I’ve never been able to find it again.
Don’t pee in the street. Sorry, but you’re going to have to use porta-potties. A lot. Take a buddy to make sure a drunk assclown won’t knock it over while you’re conducting business. (I’ve seen it happen. More than once.) If you haven’t had enough hand grenades (see below) to numb your brain from thinking about doodie parasites, then make sure you carry cash for pay-to-play toilets offered by bodegas.
Don’t pet the horses. I know they’re awesome, but petting a horse with a police officer in the saddle is the quickest way to the drunk paddy wagon. Which, by the way, are everywhere. They’re always watching.
Avoid walking in the middle of Bourbon Street. Stick to the sidewalks, and if you happen to see one of the pretty horses coming right for you, calmly get the hell out of the way. Safest bet if you have a bar in mind is to access it through the handy side streets. New Orleans has a terrific layout for this.
Don’t eat hot dogs from the street. I know you’re hungry, but you will likely find yourself praying to the porta-potty gods while your friends have the time of their lives. (My husband is still bitter, while I can still taste the $3,000 bottle of wine my friends and I drank that survived Katrina.)
Go to small bars. They’re always more fun and typically have great music. Most Bourbon Street haunts are tourist traps, and while that’s fun for an hour, you’ll wish you had experienced more of New Orleans.
Don’t drink hand grenades. I don’t know what’s in them and I don’t think anyone else does either, but it’s a drink made out of something that burns your stomach for days. They’re typically consumed by those under 21 and meathead tourists in tank tops and jean shorts — because the rest of us know better.
Be smart. New Orleans does a magnificent job controlling the chaos, but always be aware of your surroundings. In 2017, 373 arrests were made and 29 guns were seized. (That doesn’t seem like a lot of arrests, or guns, to me, to be honest.) There be bad people in the crowds too.