For most, Mardi Gras and New Orleans are synonymous. Mardi Gras in NOLA is what Carnival is to Rio or St. Patrick’s Day is to Boston or Chicago. But few know that America’s celebration of Mardi Gras, with parades and all, originated in Mobile, Alabama, 15 years before the New Orleans’ celebrations.
I’m a Mobilian by birth, so this is a bit of knowledge that I carry around proudly and bring forth every Mardi Gras season, much to the chagrin of folks I know from New Orleans and Louisiana.
Here’s the story: Brought by French settlers, the first Mardi Gras took place in 1703 shortly after Mobile became a city. In fact, the same residents that formed Mobile’s first “krewe,” in 1830 went to New Orleans in 1856 to help form one of NOLA’s most well-known societies, which put on the city’s first formal parade.
For me, Mardi Gras is tied to family. While I was born in Mobile, I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, and Mardi Gras came to me in the form of care packages from my maternal grandmother.
Every February, Grandma Mary sent a box tightly packed with purple, gold and green beads; plastic drink cups in the same Mardi Gras colors; and old-school, candy like chocolate gold coins and Mary Janes, along with a distinctly Mobile Mardi Gras treat — MoonPies.
MoonPies are a favored Mardi Gras parade favor because they are soft enough to throw without causing injury. However they might have found their way to me, the graham-cracker cookies sandwiching a marshmallow filling and covered in chocolate were my favorite. Mardi Gras was right up there with Halloween in my book.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I experienced my first Mobile Mardi Gras while standing in my cousin’s front yard, which sits right on Parade Route A, where floats traverse main streets like Government and Royal, crossing over Dauphin.
I surprised myself with my dogged enthusiasm for lunging for my own beads and MoonPies. I may or may not have landed on my back while making a skyward leap for more Mardi Gras loot.
To this day one of my cousins calls me “Pink Down,” having watched me tumble in my pink sweatsuit. It was worth it. There’s nothing like gaping at the creativity of each float and tapping into your inner child to gather more candy and beads than you know what to do with.
My cousin Jamye says that her downtown Mobile home has always been the Mardi Gras gathering spot, even before the parade started passing in front of the house around 15 years ago. As kids, she and my mother and her sisters would walk to the parade route to catch beads and candy and then run to the Mobile Civic Center to get even more.
These days family and friends come by with parade tailgating fare like red beans and rice, and my cousin Darnell works his magic on the grill while Mardi Gras beads rain down on the yard.
This is the Mobile and the Mardi Gras I know. Mardi Gras in New Orleans certainly has a flashier reputation and may land on more travel wish lists, with 60 parade routes covering 300 miles in comparison to Mobile’s six routes covering two or three miles. You’re more likely to have a celeb sighting in NOLA, maybe even see more skin.
But Mobile’s smaller-town charm is captivating in its own way, as seen in the French, Spanish colonial and Greek revival architecture throughout neighborhoods like the Lower Dauphin District.
Sample succulent seafood with Gulf views at places like Felix’s Fish Camp. You can uncover Mobile’s Mardi Gras history and artifacts at the Mobile Carnival Museum, and if you didn’t hoard enough MoonPies, you can always stop by the MoonPie General Store. Make sure you’ve made room in your luggage to bring a little of Mobile’s family-friendly Mardi Gras home.
Robin Bennefield is managing editor of Marriott TRAVELER, prone to spontaneous travel near and far. She’s on Twitter @RobinsHaveWings.