International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
“Mardi Gras” may be a translation of “Fat Tuesday”, but in Mobile, Alabama, the revelries will begin long before the third Tuesday in February this year.
Mobile takes its favourite celebration seriously, and for good reason. It was the first city to host Mardi Gras in 1703, only a year after the city’s founding by French settlers and at least two decades before New Orleans joined the party. Year by year, Mobile’s celebrations became more extravagant, with masked balls and multiple parades, each put on by different “mystic societies”, the city’s tightly-knit, secret social organizations.
Today, the mystic societies of Mobile still spearhead the major events of the season, starting with the debutante Camellia Ball in November, hosted by the Mobile Carnival Association. For a glimpse at one of the invitation-only balls, stay at the Battle House Renaissance Hotel in downtown Mobile where many of the mystic society shindigs are held. The original Battle House was built in 1852 on the site of Andrew Jackson’s military headquarters during the War of 1812, but burned down 50 years later. A new structure went up in 1908, and the hotel was renovated and re-opened in 2007 after a $200 million restoration, still featuring the original glass-domed ceiling above the ornate lobby.
Mobile’s parties and balls multiply as Fat Tuesday approaches, and the first Mardi Gras parades start at the end of January. Almost every day until Mardi Gras itself, as many as six different groups might traipse through the three-mile downtown parade route. Along with colourful beads, the marchers and float-riders throw gum, coin-like aluminium or plastic doubloons, toys and most famously, marshmallow-filled MoonPies into the eager crowds lining Government Street.
One cannot live on MoonPies alone, so in between festivities, parade-goers chow down on Mobile’s rich seafood dishes, courtesy of the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Wintzell’s Oyster House, housed on Dauphin Street since 1928, serves its shellfish specialty “fried, stewed or nude”, and also offers a seafood gumbo that has been voted “best gumbo” by local magazine Mobile Bay Monthly and at the annual Taste of Mobile. Bimini Bob’s, owned by a former Miami Dolphins American football player, has a sprawling deck that overlooks Mobile Bay and serves fish and steaks cooked over a pecan wood fire.
The big day itself is reserved for the biggest parades, including those for the two Kings of Mardi Gras: King Felix the III, crowned each year by the Mobile Carnival Association, and King Elexis I, coronated annually by the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association. The two royalty processions are separated by the Comic Cowboys Parade that pokes satirical jabs at local people, events and organizations (the 2010 Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill has been a recurring target). Mardi Gras ends with the Order of Myths parade, the oldest mystic society to still participate in the annual event, having done so since 1868.
Unlike the debauchery sometimes associated with New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Mobile keeps its festivities family-friendly. Police are quick to ticket anyone who gets too intoxicated or tries to flash the floats (while usually a surefire way of scoring beads on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, raising one’s shirt here can get you arrested).
The Mobile Museum of Art puts on a free family event that includes a marching band making its way through the galleries, a costume contest and craft projects like mask decorating and doubloon colouring.
For a closer look at all that goes into each year’s Mardi Gras, visit the Mobile Carnival Museum. With 14 gallery rooms meticulously appointed with the extravagant gowns, crowns, and costumes of Mardi Gras kings and queens from years past, the museum documents the history of the holiday, as well as the mystic societies that have maintained its legacy over the years.