“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.