The term Mardi Gras is originally French; it translates as “Fat Tuesday.” Mardi Gras is the American version of the carnivals that occur throughout the world to celebrate the coming of the religious season of lent. The American Mardi Gras occurs on the Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday, when lent begins. We use the French term for this holiday rather than “carnival” because the French founders of Mobile Alabama brought in the custom during the early eighteenth century. The final “s” in Mardi Gras is not pronounced. Despite the religious origin of the custom, the celebration has little religious significance today.
The core of traditional Mardi Gras celebration still centers around the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from northwest Florida to east Texas, but Mardi Gras themed events can occur anywhere in the United States that caters to tourists. Mobile, Biloxi Mississippi, and New Orleans Louisiana hold the longest-running celebrations, the largest being New Orleans. Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations occur in the Louisiana towns of Lafayette, Mamou, and Houma.
The New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration is that colorful American city’s iconic event. The city celebrates with parties and colorful parades for weeks, organized around community groups called krewes, which compete each year for the most elaborate motorized floats and costumes. Costumes and floats can take the full year to prepare. Costumed participants riding on floats toss specially made plastic beads, coins and other trinkets to the crowds. Every Mardi Gras features a king and queen, called “Rex and His Royal Consort,” who officiate at the various events.
After the September 2005 disaster of Hurricane Katrina, which virtually destroyed New Orleans, a scaled-down 2006 Mardi Gras acted as a symbol of the city’s survival and rebirth.
On the evening of Mardi Gras, do not be surprised if you find Mardi Gras-themed celebrations, with appropriate drinks and foods on the menu, in any bar or restaurant in the United States. Americans themselves often confuse the “Creole” culture of New Orleans with the “Cajun” culture of the bayou country just west of that city; both have French roots but different origins. You might find approximations of Creole cuisine and Cajun cuisine, or a mixture of the two, at these establishments. Travel to food-friendly Louisiana for the real thing.
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