Want to celebrate Mardi Gras without the March madness that descends upon New Orleans every year? Travel to the charming city of Mobile, Ala., for a respite from the winter doldrums without having to relive your fraternity party days. While New Orleans boasts celebrity fans and may have played host to not one but two MTV Real World casts, Mobile is actually the birthplace of the American Mardi Gras.
In addition to its French colonial architecture, largely untouched by Hurricane Katrina, Mobile has plenty to recommend itself as a worthy Mardi Gras destination. Since 1703, the city has celebrated the Catholic tradition with plenty of revelry, ridiculous costumes, and booze, albeit in a more subdued way than its Louisianan cousin. Mobile, not New Orleans, also began the practice of having exclusive “mystic” societies organize the festivities.
In 1830, one of the original krewes, the Cowbellion de Rakin society, first paraded on the streets with hoes, cowbells, and rakes. The Civil War halted celebrations for several years, until Joseph Stillwell Cain revived the tradition in 1866. Dressed as a Chickasaw Indian, he called himself "Chief Slacabormorinico” and paraded with a decorated coal wagon pulled by a mule as his float. Residents honor his legacy through Joe Cain Day, celebrated on the Sunday before Mardi Gras.
Known as the The People’s Parade, citizens can participate with makeshift floats without membership in a society. But mystic societies continue to operate the majority of Mobile’s Mardi Gras floats, and members still mask themselves during the processions to keep their identities secret. Instead of being armed with hoes and rakes, they sit on elaborate floats and distribute “throws.” As in New Orleans, staple throws include strands of colorful beads, plastic cups, and doubloons.
Mobile’s specialty, however, is much sweeter. If you are lucky, you will also catch a Moon Pie, that southern delicacy of a marshmallow sandwiched between two chocolate covered cookies. Top that, New Orleans. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/alwright1)
Where to Stay:
1. In the true spirit of Mardi Gras decadence, stay at the historic Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel and Spa. Located on the riverfront, this grande-dame hotel was built in 1852 and served as a Confederate hospital during the Civil War. But don’t worry, it has updated its quarters since then.
2. If you’re looking for cozy but less expensive accommodations, try the Berney Fly Bed and Breakfast. Operating out of a restored Victorian era home, the innkeepers cook you a hot Southern breakfast every morning. After a day of sightseeing, enjoy an iced-tea on the wrap-around porch and channel the ladies of Steel Magnolias. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/RPG Master)
Where to Eat:
1. It’s the South, so you have to eat barbecue, right? Yes, The Brick Pit is mentioned in Patricia Schultz’s A Thousand Places to See in the U.S. and Canada Before You Die, but that’s not the only reason to visit. Located in an unassuming shack with servers in no-nonsense red t-shirts, this is the kind of joint where you know the BBQ has to be good, and standouts include pulled pork and ribs. A mammoth plate of succulent pork, BBQ beans, homemade coleslaw, and Texas Toast, should provide enough sustenance for a day and night of Mardi Gras revelry. (Pictured, above. Photo courtesy of Flickr/mrak75)
2. Ribs not your thing? You’re near the Gulf, so have some seafood instead. Located on Mobile Bay, Felix’s Fish Camp has favorites like Southern shrimp and grits, cornmeal fried oysters, and moon pie a la mode.
3. For more genteel palates, True should fit the bill. Chef Wesley True opened his namesake restaurant in 2007 with the hope of introducing an eatery of Manhattan sophistication coupled with Southern charm. Refined Southern dishes include deviled eggs with black truffle and shrimp and grits with tomato caper fricone, buttered corn grits and bacon.