Mardi Gras Masks

Mardi Gras masks are a longstanding tradition, whether they cover only the wearer’s eyes or the entire face. The masks add an element of mystery and intrigue to the festivities surrounding Mardi Gras, and they are probably one of our favorite traditions! The masks have their origins in ritual celebrations, and the New Orleans celebration of Mardi Gras has been the largest masked party in North America for nearly 100 years. When Mardi Gras was first celebrated in New Orleans, masks were an excellent way to escape the society and class constraints that were so prevalent at the time. With a mask on, carnival goers were free to be whoever they wanted and to mingle with those who would normally shun them. Women, however, needed to be careful when wearing masks; if their identities were discovered their reputations were almost always brought into question. Today, almost everyone wears a mask during Mardi Gras and float riders are actually required by law to wear masks! The masks add an element of fun to the day, adding to the excitement and magic of the celebrations. If you’re looking to pick up a mask of your own you can find them all over the French Quarter, from the simple and silly to the beautiful and elaborate. If you’re looking for a fancier mask, or you just want to see the artistic side of Mardi Gras masks, swing by Maskarade–they even carry some handmade Italian masks created in the old traditional Venetian style!

What’s With the Baby?

We all know that Mardi Gras season means the advent of those delicious rounds of braided cinnamon dough called King Cakes, but why is there a baby inside? The cakes originated in medieval France and Spain and were brought to Louisiana by the early French and Spanish settlers. The tradition of serving fancy cakes at the bal du roi (king’s ball) quickly took hold, and in these cakes a bean was always hidden. The person who found that bean was responsible for bringing the cake at the next gathering. The bean soon took on new life and was sometimes a nut, a coin, or even a ring! The finder of the prize got to be king or queen for the day, a somewhat dubious honor that resulted not just in supplying the next cake but hosting the next gathering as well.

It wasn’t until the 1940s when McKenzie’s Bakery owner Donald Entringer bought a surplus of little porcelain dolls from a traveling salesman and hid them in his king cakes. Over time, these were replaced with plastic dolls and soon the Catholic population of New Orleans was claiming that these little dolls were actually baby Jesus, a reminder of the season’s religious connection to King’s Day which celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men after the birth of Jesus. Of course, nowadays those plastic babies are no longer baked into the cakes to avoid creating a choking hazard for those unaware of the custom. New the baby is included in the box with the king cake for customers to hide in the cakes when they serve it to their guests–so keep an eye out for any frosting that looks like it may have had a baby pushed through it unless you want to host the next party!

Sugar Plantations of Louisiana

Sugarcane has a long history here in Louisiana. When you head out of the city for a plantation tour you will find yourself quickly surrounded by sugar plantations. After Florida, Louisiana is the number two state for sugarcane production in the United States. The harvest usually occurs from late October through mid November. Although the cane is no longer plowed by hand, as can be seen in this 1910 photograph from Raceland, Louisiana, there are still a number of operational sugarcane refineries in Southeast Louisiana, including Domino’s. The state yields about 15 million tons of sugarcane yearly and a little under 2 million tons of raw sugar are produced from that harvest. After the harvest, there is an old tradition of burning the crop. This burning has a number of benefits, from ridding the fields of snakes and rodents to making it easier to pick up the blackened cane stalks by burning away the razor sharp cane leaves. It also has the added bonus of leaving behind ashes that make a wonderful fertilizer for the next crop! Finally, the burning liquefies the sap within the stalk making it easier to extract one the cane reaches the sugar mill.

The Battle of New Orleans

Yesterday marked the 199th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. A beautiful day in the French Quarter gave way to a commemoration of the incredible final battle of the war of 1812. The Battle of New Orleans was fought–and won–just four miles East of New Orleans at the Chalmette battlefield. Against overwhelming odds, both Creole and American citizens of the city united against the much larger and better equipped common enemy, the British. No one knew that a peace treaty had already been signed and that the war between England and the young United States of America had been over since Christmas Eve two weeks earlier! Luckily, the New Orleans forces prevailed. The Battle of New Orleans is widely considered to be the greatest American land victory of the war.

Victorian Architecture Uptown

When people familiar with the architecture of New Orleans think of the Uptown district they usually picture the iconic columns and clean lines of the neo-Classical style so abundant among the old oaks along St Charles Avenue. However, when you take a closer look you will see that in addition to this stately style there are also many examples of Victorian architecture, including rounded corners, ornate window details, and bright pastel colors. This style is somewhat similar to the Gothic steamboat style which is perhaps best characterized by the flamboyant exuberance of San Francisco Plantation. As you tour around the city, see if you can spot the Victorian houses that help create the unique patchwork of architectural styles in New Orleans!

The Houma Indians

The United Houma Nation is a state recognized Native American tribe with approximately 17,000 citizens throughout the southeastern coast of Louisiana. Despite their large population and ancient presence in Louisiana, the Houma tribe has never been officially recognized by the United States government. The tribe has a long history in the New Orleans area, and the first recorded relationships between French settlers and the Houma date back to the mid 17th century. The name Houma, or Ouma, is generally understood to mean red and is thought to relate to the stripped red cypress trees that are found throughout the area.

For at least three centuries the Houma have used woven baskets to transport and store items such as food and clothing. The baskets are made out of plants readily available in the Louisiana swamps, including palmetto, cypress, cattail, and river cane. Today, basket weaving remains an important component of Houma culture as it incorporates both traditions that have been passed down through the generations and a few that have been revitalized in recent decades. The beautiful palmetto baskets are considered to be works of art and can be found in a special exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art now through March 2nd, 2014. You can find more information about this exciting exhibit here and more information about the United Houma Nation here.