Internet MardiGras Guide

3. A Carnival Chronology

The following is a detailed chronology of what happens prior to and during the Carnival Season. Each of these will be released as a separate file to the New Orleans Mailing List, and will be available through the list's mail server (

3.1 Preparing for Carnival

The preparation period for the 2006 Carnival season began the day after Mardi Gras, 2005. Revelers haven't caught their breath, debutantes haven't recovered from the whirlwind of parties and balls, and drunks haven't even been released from Central Lockup when krewe captains and individuals alike begin thinking about the next year.

Travel planning is the first big planning step taken right after Carnival. Many regular Mardi Gras visitors make their reservations for the next year as they're checking out for the current one. Same goes for restaurants -- you want reservations at Commander's for next year, this year is the best time to make them. The weekend before Fat Tuesday through Ash Wednesday is the busiest time of the year for the New Orleans hospitality industry, with hotel occupancy rates at 98-100%. There was some concern this year that the casinos on the Gulf Coast were cutting into the number of people staying in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, but this won't happen at Carnival time. If 5% of last year's hotel guests go out to Biloxi, 5% more people will take their place for Mardi Gras.

For the people who put on Carnival, the initial preparation stage is to do a de-brief on the season that just concluded. Krewe captains meet with their officers and evaluate all aspects of the parade, discuss which bands they want to ask back next year, evaluate the performance of the police, and the behavior of the krewe members. After this is done, many will take a week or two off from Carnival, then things start back in earnest. The next step is to decide on a theme for next year's parade. For krewes that own their floats, this is a simple process. The captain and other officers meet with the artists from the company that builds their floats to kick ideas around. The School of Design usually chooses a historical or literary theme for the Rex parade. Others choose themes based on current events, movies, songs, etc. Krewes that rent their floats have a more difficult time putting a theme together. They have to wait until their float company puts together its rental pool, then see which ones can be assembled to make a parade. The other difficulty New Orleans krewes who rent has is a city ordinance that permits floats from being in only two parades in the city during a Carnival season. Some krewes use all of the floats from another krewe's parade, so they have to wait for that krewe to complete their plans before even starting theirs. Zeus in Metairie is an example of this. They parade on Lundi Gras evening with the floats Endymion used in the city the Saturday night before.

While the captain and the krewe officers work on the theme and floats, the float lieutenants are busy handling membership recruitment. New members are usually brought into a krewe when a current members resigns, or dies. Each individual float lieutenant is responsible for filling holes in their float's complement. There's always turnover in krewe membership, although it's often quite slow for the more popular krewes. Endymion and Bacchus are said to have membership waiting lists of over a thousand people each! Still, people get transferred to other cities, or they die, etc., so there is always a bit of on-going membership recruitment. It's important for a float lieutenant to get their members together as early as possible so orders for costumes, etc., can get put in on time. Much of the krewe-related throws and such have to be ordered from the far east, so this all requires a great deal of advance planning.

Getting all of this together obviously requires a great deal of money, so fundraising is also an important part of a krewe's preparation for Carnival. The arrival of casino gambling in Mississippi and Louisiana has forced many krewes to change their fundraising strategy radically. Many krewes have relied for years on the proceeds from bingo games. Many of the area's regular bingo players now head out to the riverboats or over to the coast to play slot machines. As a result, krewes are having to be more creative in terms of fundraising events, and some have also been forced to raise their membership dues a good bit. Fundraising is one of those year-round projects; the more events you have, the more money you can bring in. Krewes still have arrangements with area bingo parlors to sponsor different nights of the week, but they're having to branch out into raffles, mini-fairs and other events.

Being a member of a krewe's court is also a major expense, either for the member or for a young lady's family. While many krewes have different methods for choosing their king, the queen and court are almost invariably chosen by the captain and his officers. Preference is given to member's daughters who are of the right age (usually 17 to 22). Of course, a certain level of competition enters here, placing the captin and officers in a no-win situation. Choosing the court is actually a little bit easier for the "society" or "old-line" krewes, since the number of debutantes is fairly limited, and there are several opportunities for the ladies to each be a queen of a ball. It's the "non-society" krewes where the in-fighting gets heavy, since the fathers are normally only in one organization.

Many krewes do not exist simply to put on a parade one evening during Carnival season; they're year-round social clubs. Krewes will hold dances, crawfish boils and other social gatherings through the summer and fall. These events usually bring in a little extra profit helps fill up the krewe's coffers, while giving the members and their families an opportunity to get together. Many krewes hold a "Coronation Dance" in the fall, where the queen and maids for the coming year are presented, and the king is chosen. Krewes that hold such a dance often choose their king by lot from the members of a more exclusive "king's club." Any member who wants to be king can pay a premium in addition to his membership dues, and becomes a member of the king's club. On the night of the coronation dance, all of the names of the king's club members are placed in a hat or bowl and are drawn one at a time. The last name in is the king. This method serves several purposes: it brings in a little extra money, it guarantees that a member will only be chosen if they want to (and can afford to) be king, and eliminates in-fighting among krewe members for the honor.

Several krewes have also gone into the "ball business" in the off-season. New Orleans attracts many large conventions in the spring and fall, when the weather is relatively mild. These folks want to get a taste of what Mardi Gras is all about, so the organization holding the convention will contract with a krewe to present their ball one evening at a hotel. This is great fun for the krewe, since the king, queen and court get a chance to wear their costumes once again. It's also a great fundraising opportunity for the krewe, since they can charge the organization holding the convention a good bit of money for staging a ball.

By the time the fall rolls around, the only main item left to do is to line up the bands and marching groups for the next year. This has to wait until the school year starts, since the bulk of the marching groups in a parade are junior- and senior-high school bands. Many of the better high school bands will get offers from two parades held on the same night, so it's important that the schools fix their line-ups for the season early, giving the krewes enough time to contact alternates. Marching in parades is an important fundraising tool for the schools, so they take the process very seriously.

As the weather begins to turn from extremely hot to the more moderate temperatures of the fall, the heat begins to turn up on Carnival preparations. By August or September, hotels have hit the 90% or better mark for hotel occupancy. Companies and large families who rent out houses or apartments along St. Charles Avenue or in the Quarter begin to have trouble finding a place if they wait past September. Krewe members meet for costume fittings and to place orders for doubloons and other krewe-logo throws. The city and parish governmental agencies responsible for coordinating Carnival begin to hold meetings with krewe officers, school band directors, the police, and others to discuss plans for the coming season. By Thanksgiving, just about everything is in place, and ready to shift into high gear after Christmas. Some krewes will hold a Christmas social or dance, and some even hold their ball during the Christmas season, even though the official start of the Carnival season isn't until January 6th.

By the time the kids and grandkids are opening presents on Christmas morning, the stage is set, and it's then just a matter of implementing the plans. The floats are on schedule, the throw will arrive in a week or two, and the doubloons are just about done. Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras guide has gone to press, and the Times-Picayune is ready to roll their Carnival insert one week prior to when parades begin. Popeye's has coached all of their managers on how to order extra food to accomodate hungry parade-goers, and band directors at schools beg the rest of the teachers to go easy on tests and homework during the two weeks of parades. Cops cram as much time as they can in with their families, because the sixteen hour days are about to start. With the exception of the hotels, restaurants, and bars in the Quarter, New Year's is just a family holiday, and everyone waits in anticipation of the year's biggest party.

3.15 The King Cake

For the next several weeks, New Orleanians will celebrate the Carnival season in two main ways: going to balls and dances held by Carnival krewes (the organizations that hold the parades), and by eating lots of king cakes. In fact, since balls are essentially private, invitation-only affairs, eating king cakes is the main Carnival activity between Twelfth Night and the start of parades.


The King's Cake has its roots in pre-Christian religions of Western Europe. It was customary to choose a man to be the sacred king of the tribe for a year. That man would be treated like a king for the year, then he would be sacrificed, and his blood returned to the soil to ensure that the harvest would be successful. The method of choosing who would have the honor of being the sacred king was the King's Cake. A coin or bean would be placed in the cake before baking, and whoever got the slice that had the coin was the chosen one.

When Christianity extended its influence and began overshadowing the religions that came before it, many of the local customs were not outright abolished, but instead were incorporated into Christian tradition and given a new spin Catholic priests were not predisposed to human sacrifice, so the King's Cake was converted into a celebration of the Magi, the three Kings who came to visit the Christ Child.

The King Cake and New Orleans Carnival

The King Cake tradition came to New Orleans with the first French settlers and has stayed ever since. Like the rest of Mardi Gras during those early days, the king cake was a part of the family's celebration, and really didn't take on a public role until after the Civil War. In 1870, the Twelfth Night Revelers held their ball, with a large king cake as the main attraction. Instead of choosing a sacred king to be sacrificed, the TNR used the bean in the cake to choose the queen of the ball. This tradition has carried on to this day, although the TNR now use a wooden replica of a large king cake. The ladies of the court pull open little drawers in the cake's lower layer which contain the silver and gold beans. Silver means you're on the court; gold is for the queen.

With the TNR making a big deal over the king cake in the society circles, others in the city started having king cake parties. These parties particularly among children, became very popular and have also continued to today. The focus of today's king cake party for kids has shifted more to the school classroom than the home, however. Up through the 1950s, neighborhoods would have parties. One family would start the ball rolling after Twelfth Night, and they'd continue on weekends through Carnival. Whoever got the baby (the coin or bean had changed to a ceramic or porcelain baby about an inch long by then) in the king cake was to hold the next party. You can still hear stories from folks who were kids during the Great Depression of what their mommas would do to them if they came home with the baby from a king cake party, since so many families were short on money then.

The King Cake Today

Schools and offices are the main sites for king cake parties these days. Someone will pick up a cake at the bakery on the way downtown and leave it out for everyone to grab a piece, or mom will send one to school on a Friday for the kids to share. You an always tell the locals from the transfers in any given office because the local knows what to do when he or she gets the baby. The foreigner just drops it on the counter or some such, and possibly might not even bring the next cake. Sacrilege.

The modern-day king cake buyer has a lot of advantages over those folks that came over from France with the LeMoyne brothers once upon a time. Not only do bakeries get into the king cake business this time of year, but also the donut shops, so it's hard to escape them. Of course, most donut shop king cakes are fried, so they're essentially just giant donuts. Some of them aren't all that bad, but it's a different taste from a baked cake.

The classic king cake is oval-shaped, like the pattern of a racetrack. The dough is basic coffee-cake dough, sometimes laced with cinnamon, sometimes just plain. The dough is rolled out into a long tubular shape (not unlike a thin po-boy), then shaped into an oval. The ends are twisted together to complete the shape (HINT: if you want to find the piece with the baby, look for the twist in the oval where the two ends of the dough meet. That's where the baby is usually inserted.) The cake is then baked, and decorated when it comes out. The classic decoration is simple granulated sugar, colored purple, green, and gold (the colors of Carnival). King cakes have gotten more and more fancy over the years, so now bakeries offer iced versions (where there's classic white coffee cake glaze on the cake), and even king cakes filled with apple, cherry, cream cheese, or other kinds of coffee-cake fillings.

Prices range from two to three dollars for a small traditional cake to close to twenty for a large filled one. A more-or-less standard slice of king cake is about three inches wide. The ceramic babies have been replaced with plastic ones, but many places now sell both pink and brown babies. Haydel's Bakery usually has a limited supply of a ceramic baby that they include with the cakes (though not baked inside). Many bakeries will honor requests for custom-made cakes that have more than one baby. I know kindergarten teachers who always orders a cake with a baby for each slice, so none of the kids is left out! That type of cake is also great for practical jokes at the office.

Who makes the best king cakes is one of those questions like who makes the best po-boy, or is Morning Call now unacceptable because they've moved out to Metairie. Remember your manners whenever you enter into discussions on religious topics. Everyone has fond memories of a place in the neighborhood, and some folks are loyal to even the Real Superstore. My personal favorites are Randazzo's (locations in Chalmette, Metairie, Terrytown and Slidell), and McKenzie's (McKenzie's is ubiquitous; if you don't know about McKenzie's, you're not from New Orleans). Yes, I do enjoy the much-maligned traditional king cake from McKenzie's, even though it only has granulated sugar as a topping. Brings back memories from when I was a kid. There are tons of other places in the metro area doing king cakes, so it's almost impossible to review them all. Look for discussions of what folks are eating on the New Orleans Internet Mailing List.

King Cakes via Mail-Order

For years now, those who are unable to be with us here in New Orleans for Carnival have been able to share the Carnival spirit by ordering a mail-order king cake. Many bakeries are now in the mail-order business, including my two favorites. As I buy other cakes throughout the season, I'll post additional phone numbers to the NOIML, as well as adding them to a file that will be available on the mail-server. In the meantime, here are two good starts for ordering a king cake:

Randazzo's: (800) 684-CAKE (2253) Fax (504) 271-5064
Prices: Call them at +1.504.271.7611 for sizes and combinations and for current prices. 3.2 The Twelfth Night -- The Official Opening of Carnival Season

The Feast of the Epiphany is a day of closure for most Christians in the United States. It's traditionally the day when the visit to the Christ Child by the Three Wise Men is celebrated, marking the end of the Christmas season. The tree and decorations come down, and household life returns to a more normal routine, as the kids go back to school until Easter break.

The scenario is a little bit different in New Orleans. While the rest of the country is breathing a collective sigh of relief that the holidays are over, New Orleanians are just getting their second wind to begin The Big Party -- Carnival. It all begins on Twelfth Night, January 6th, with the bal masque of the Twelfth Night Revelers, and the Uptown streetcar ride of the Phunny Phorty Phellows.

The Twelfth Night Revelers have held the official kick-off to the Carnival season since January 6, 1870. Theirs is not the traditional tableau-style ball held by other krewes. The members of the krewe mask, but the centerpiece of the celebration is the the ladies of the court are selected. A giant king cake is rolled out onto the floor of the ballroom, and the ladies selected to be maids of the court all gather round. Each is given a piece of the cake, and those pieces contain one gold and several silver beans. The young lady who receives the gold bean is named the queen, and the others become the maids of the court. The cake originally was a traditional king cake, but the logistics of making sure that the right lady was chosen queen prompted the krewe to switch to a wooden replica what looks more like a classic wedding cake.

This giant replica is wheeled out onto the floor by masked krewe members who are dressed like bakers, all in white with chef's hats on their heads. The bottom layer of the cake has small drawers in it, and the ladies of the court are arranged around the cake, each one in front of a drawer. They open the drawers and pull out their beans. From a strictly fashion standpoint, the queen of Twelfth Night is not as well-dressed as her counterparts from other krewes; all of the court wear simple white dresses, since they don't know which one will lead th way that evening. After the queen and court are selected, the ball proceeds in the traditional manner, with presentations to the king and queen, call-out dances, then general dancing. The ball itself ends around midnight, but the parties continue well into the morning.

While the men of the Twelfth Night Revelers are still getting dressed for their ball, which begins promptly at 9:00pm, the Phunny Phorty Phellows are already rolling on their streetcar ride from the car barn on Willow Street down Carrollton and St. Charles Avenues to Canal Street, then back to the barn. The Phunny Phorty Phellows is a group of primarily thirty- and forty-something folks who decided some years ago to renew the tradition of riding through the streets announcing that the Carnival season has begun. The Twelfth Night Revelers' ball is a private invitation-only affair; the Phunny Phorty Phellows ride the streetcar route hollering out at those they meet along the way. Of course, there's no rule that says that one cannot imbibe a bit of the grape while riding along the streetcar route (there's a designated driver, after all), so the Phellows do indeed have a merry time.

By the time the streetcar is parked back in the barn, the Phellows (there are lots of women Phellows, by the way -- no sexist organization, this one) have disembarked, and the Twelfth Night Revelers have chosen their queen, the rest of us are counting the days to our krewe's functions, the first king cake someone brings to the office, or the first parade in our neighborhoods. By day, New Orleans is more-or-less a normal place to live, but by night, the city won't be calm and quiet until Ash Wednesday.

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