Tag Archives: Mardi Gras

Passing

My next-door neighbor died a couple of weeks ago. She was a good and thoughtful neighbor, an attorney in her mid-40s, and, as far as I know, her death was totally unexpected. The first two people who informed me said she “passed” and, frankly, as a teacher, that word sounds too much like a grading assessment. Jennifer did “pass,” I guess; unfortunately, she also died.

Jennifer knew my interest in Mobile, New Orleans, and Mardi Gras. In fact, I created a travel guide for her very first trip to New Orleans and loaned her some books about the city to get her prepared and in the mood. New Orleans was a perfect match for her; she loved things bright and cheerful and frou frou and her cozy back yard had decorations and light displays for every season.

I used to throw a Joe Cain Day party on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. The Joe Cain Day parade is a uniquely Mobile celebration open to all participants – the “people’s parade.” A few years ago, a few days before Joe Cain Day, I drove in from work to find a big fluffy festive Mardi Gras wreath hanging on my back gate. I knew immediately where it came from.

I moved the wreath to the front door, where it remained until midnight on Fat Tuesday.

The next year, a couple of weeks before Fat Tuesday, I hung the wreath back on the door. The next day it was gone. Left in its place was a note from Jennifer letting me know that she had some ideas for improvement and was taking the wreath for an update. It was back on the door a couple of days later – replete with even more beads and embedded masks.

This year, I hung the wreath on a Tuesday night two weeks before Mardi Gras. Jennifer died the next day. The wreath will now have a deeper meaning when I hang it in years to come.


I gauge impending spring by the trees that bloom in the front yards of the row of prim townhouses where I live. A decade ago, I planted ninety crocus bulbs in my front yard with the plan that they would be the first blossoms to herald the spring season. Next would be Jennifer’s front-yard crabapple tree, followed by the huge spreading white cherry blossoms in her back yard, that hang gracefully over my back fence. Finally, my pink cherry blossoms would burst forth in my front yard. By that time, the dogwoods and redbuds and glories of spring would be ready to go.

The crocuses scattered in my front yard seem to have petered out over the past couple of years so the big harbinger of spring in front of the house has been Jennifer’s crabapple tree. It’s a tall, gangly thing. Several people who have worked on my yard have offered to chop it down for free. Indeed, it had a lot of dead branches on it but Jennifer wouldn’t hear of losing it. One Saturday several years ago, her dad and I managed to trim a lot of the dead off and the tree has shaped up fairly nicely since.

It’s still not a beauty, except for those couple of weeks in the late winter when its deep purplish blossoms burst forth.

Last year, Jennifer, who did most of her coming and going through the back of her house, commented to me that she had completely missed the crabapple blooming because she had been so tied up with business, personal, and other things and had not even looked in the front yard.

I assured her that the show of blooms had been particularly beautiful and promised to alert her when the tree started to bloom this year.

Jennifer’s funeral last week took place on a dreary rainy Tuesday. The next day, as I opened my bedroom curtains just after sunrise, was bright and sunny. I glanced over at Jennifer’s crabapple and saw the first blossoms high in the top of the sun-dappled tree.

Winter will pass. Happy Mardi Gras.

A Menu for the End of the Carnival Season

IMG_1134  My attraction to Mardi Gras is directly tied to my attraction to the Gulf Coast. Growing up inland, Mardi Gras always seemed mysterious and somehow “foreign” and like a place I’d rather be. I would see news reports of the activities in New Orleans and Mobile and other celebrations on a smaller scale along the Gulf and they seemed to be in stark contrast to the grey late-winter life around me. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church and we did not observe Ash Wednesday. When I realized the Christian tie-in to the revelry of Mardi Gras and better understood the season that begins on Epiphany and ends precisely at midnight on Shrove Tuesday, that knowledge gave the events of the season even more mystery and appeal.

Age, experience, and knowledge began to de-mystify the events of the carnival season leading up to Mardi Gras and more and more the events began to move farther inland. When I was living and teaching in Indiana in the 90s, I began to throw beads at the end of my Fat Tuesday classes to give myself a sense of connection to my home region. Huntsville, where I live now, had its 2nd annual Mardi Gras parade on Saturday, February 14, but it’s a sad substitute for the real deal on the coast.

I am a bit of a traditionalist and a purist when it comes to the proper way to do things and I bristle a bit at the fact that one can now stand beneath a New Orleans Bourbon Street balcony and be showered with Mardi Gras beads on virtually any night of the year. In my mind, Mardi Gras beads should only be thrown in the season. And then they should be packed away until the following January.

The appeal of tradition and the desire to recapture the mystique of “The Season” on the Gulf Coast of the Deep South is one of the reasons Joe Cain Day, observed in Mobile on the Sunday preceding Fat Tuesday (and the subject of my previous essay), has engaged me.

I hosted my first Joe Cain Day celebration this Sunday, February 15, and it brought some levity to a blustery February afternoon in north Alabama as still another cold front – “the weather of northern aggression” I call it – moved into the area. On the invitations I wrote “Masks and mourning attire optional.” My guests, some of them wearing masks and almost all dressed in some form of black in “mourning” for Joe Cain, enjoyed the respite before the cold and icy work week resumed.

IMG_1128One of my favorite images in New Orleans is that of Mardi Gras beads that never came down to earth during parades and got caught in the live oaks along the parade routes. They hang there throughout the year, gradually fading but always a reminder that the season has gone but will always come back again in January. I look for these stray beads on streetcar rides along St. Charles. With that image in mind, I threw beads from my second story bedroom window on the day before the party and let them catch in the cherry tree in my front yard so that my guests would have that image of beads in the trees upon arrival. (Now I will spend the rest of February retrieving Mardi Gras beads from the cherry tree.)

I designed the menu to reflect regional and seasonal tastes and as usual there was much more food than was needed. I made a lot of the food myself. I purchased other things from favorite vendors. Here’s my menu.

A Joe Cain Day Celebration / February 15, 2015

Boiled Peanuts

Cheese Straws

Breads, Toasts, and Crackers for dipping and spreading

Gumbo

Lobster and Shrimp Salad

Alabama Gulf Shrimp w/cocktail and garlic buttermilk sauces

Hot Seafood Dip w/ shrimp and crabmeat

Mardi Gras Chicken

Chocolate Truffles

Moon Pies

King Cake

Bloody Marys, Hurricane Punch and assorted beverages

The gumbo was ordered from Wintzell’s (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com), a Mobile-based oyster house and restaurant that makes one of my favorite gumbos. The King Cake, a carnival season standard, came from Paul’s Pastry Shop (www.paulspastry.com) in Picayune, Mississippi. My friends G. Todd and Anita brought a couple of other dishes — a crawfish beignet with a savory sauce and crostini topped with shrimp, red pepper jelly, and sweet potato. The chocolates were from the Chocolate Gallery in Huntsville (www.chocolategalleryal.com).

IMG_1133“Mardi Gras Chicken” was a clear favorite of the day. When I was on the Gulf Coast in December, I was toying with the idea of a Joe Cain Day party. I asked my friends, the Brunsons – who are natives of Mobile, for a dish that their mother, Jean Brunson, would have made for Mardi Gras and Joe Cain Day. The response was unanimous – “Mardi Gras Chicken!” – and a recipe was produced. Mrs. Brunson was the caterer for the First Baptist Church of Mobile for many years and had a sizable repertoire. “Mardi Gras Chicken” is really an adaptation of a chicken tetrazinni recipe but Mrs. Brunson always made it around Mardi Gras and her children still refer to it as “Mardi Gras Chicken.”

I made my own revisions to the recipe and my adaptation of Mrs. Brunson’s adaptation is what I’m offering here. It’s a hit.

Mardi Gras Chicken

1¼ lbs. boiled chicken

1 large pkg. rotelli pasta

1 cup green, red, and yellow peppers, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

6 pieces of celery, diced

6 strips of pimento, chopped

2 cans of cream of mushroom soup

¾ cup of sour cream

1 cup of sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated

4 ozs. almonds, minced

Cook rotelli pasta in chicken broth. Since it will be baked in a casserole, it is best to cook it until it is fairly limp. Drain pasta. Add chicken to pasta (chop chicken into fairly large bites). Add peppers, onion, celery, and pimento. Stir in cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, and ½ cup cheese.

Place mixture in large casserole dish and top with ½ cup cheese and minced almonds. Bake at 350 degrees for I hour.

Happy Mardi Gras!

IMG_1146

Joe Cain Day in Mobile

 

IMG_1124 On Sunday, February 15, I am hosting a pre-Mardi Gras celebration for Joe Cain Day. Joe Cain Day is an event that is unique to Mobile, Alabama. It is always celebrated on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. I have heard about it for decades but only got really intrigued with its origins and traditions in recent years. The more I learned the more fun it sounded. My little get-together is a way of sharing the tradition with my friends in north Alabama.

Of course, most Alabamians know and proudly assert that Mobile was the site of the first Mardi Gras celebrations in the present-day United States. Mobile was founded in 1703, fifteen years before New Orleans, and had established New World Carnival celebrations under French rule early on. There is still banter back and forth between the two cities about the legitimacy of Mobile’s claim to being the first. And a New Orleans friend once told me, “Well, Mobile may have started it, but New Orleans taught them how it ought to be done.”

There is no controversy, however, over the origins of Joe Cain Day.

Joseph Stillwell Cain (1832-1904) is credited with reviving Mardi Gras in Mobile after the Civil War. It all started in 1866 when he paraded through downtown Mobile in fanciful Native American garb. This act is considered the rebirth of modern Mardi Gras in Mobile.

Joe Cain was a Mobile native and as a teenager was a charter member of the Tea Drinkers Society (TDS), a Mobile mystic society that paraded on New Year’s Eve. Prior to the Civil War, pre-Lenten celebrations in Mobile were customarily tied into New Year’s observances.

When the Civil War began, Joe Cain was a private in the Confederate Army. When his military service was over he lived for a time in New Orleans and participated in New Orleans Mardi Gras observances.

In 1866, when Cain returned to his hometown from New Orleans, he decided to revive Mardi Gras in the city. He and six other members of TDS decorated a charcoal wagon, dressed in Native American garb, and frolicked through the streets of Mobile. Cain led the procession dressed as a fictional Chickasaw chief, “Chief Slackabamarinico,” and declared an end to Mobile’s suffering and the return of pre-Lenten carnival celebrations.

Joe Cain’s actions had an impact and led to the city officially moving the culmination of carnival festivities from the New Year’s season to traditional Fat Tuesday. Cain was a founding member of the mystic society called Order of Myths. Order of Myths adopted the emblem of Folly chasing Death around a broken column. This is assumed to be symbolic of the Civil War, a Lost Cause for the rebel South.

Cain remained active in Mardi Gras. Later in life, he and his wife moved from Mobile to the fishing village of Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Cain died in 1904 and was buried near Bayou La Batre. After Cain’s death, Mobile’s Mardi Gras remained popular but exclusive. The mystic societies had closed memberships. Most of the citizens of the city could only participate as onlookers.

In 1966, Julian Lee Rayford, a local author, set out to honor Joe Cain and open Mardi Gras participation to more people. Cain and his wife’s bodies were moved from Bayou La Batre to Mobile’s Church Street Cemetery. Cain’s interment was accompanied by a Mardi Gras parade, jazz band, and mourners. His tombstone has a jester’s image and reads “Here Lies Old Joe Cain, the Heart and Soul of Mardi Gras in Mobile.”

The popularity of Cain’s reburial inspired the creation of “Joe Cain Day,” observed on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. The Joe Cain Day Parade, also known as “The People’s Parade” because anyone may participate (although it eventually became so big that the number of participants had to be capped), is led by a person chosen to dress as Chief Slackabamarinico. The parade concludes at Church Street Cemetery where revelers dance atop Cain’s grave.

Throughout the day, a mystic society of mourning-clad women known as “Joe Cain’s Merry Widows” wail over the loss of their beloved Joe Cain and declare “He loved me best!” The Merry Widows wail at the grave, toast the deceased from the front porch of his house on Augusta Street, and ride in a place of honor in the Parade. In 2003, another all-woman mystic society, “Mistresses of Joe Cain,” appeared. The Mistresses are also veiled, but dress all in scarlet and proclaim that “Of course he loved us best!” They parade alongside the vehicle carrying the Widows in the Parade, taunting them along the route and creating a general caterwaul.

Rumor has it that still another all-woman mystic society might be in the works that will be Joe Cain’s “ladies of the evening” – or some more earthy variation. In any case, Joe Cain Day in Mobile is a great representation of the silliness and release of the Mardi Gras season.

(The image is of the cherry tree in my front yard, bedecked with beads for Joe Cain and Mardi Gras.)