Mardi Gras popularity grows as celebrations expand in Tulsa
BY JASON ASHLEY WRIGHT & NICOLE MARSHALL MIDDLETON World Scene Writers
Thursday, February 07, 2013
2/07/13 at 7:06 AM
Mardi Gras, French for "Fat Tuesday," is the day before Ash Wednesday - the first day of the Christian season of Lent, which leads up to Easter.
More simply - perhaps, more heathenly put - Mardi Gras is a time to be raucous and ribald before Lent begins at midnight Mardi Gras evening.
On Feb. 12, revelers from New Orleans to Tulsa will don beads and decorate beautiful Mardi Gras masks that for centuries were associated with the carnevale festivals in Venice, Italy.
Create your own by cutting out and decorating the mask on this page, or download one of several styles from tulsaworld.com/mardigrasmask Don't forget to snap a picture of yourself wearing the mask. Send your photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first Mardi Gras that Lauren Landwerlin remembers was when she was 3.
"I was dressed as an angel," she recalled. "My dad was a frog. I think my mom was Alice in Wonderland, and my grandmother was a gypsy."
She would be so excited once they secured their favorite spot on a bridge over one of the canals, setting up a picnic with king cake and cold Popeyes fried chicken, every now and then catching a whole pack of beads someone threw from a parade float - "throws," as they're called along the Gulf Coast.
The smell of diesel exhaust will always bring her back to the "neutral ground," what folks in any other city outside of New Orleans call the median, where she'd wait for the parade.
About 11 years ago, she moved here.
"I love Tulsa, but during this time of year it becomes painfully evident that you can take the girl out of New Orleans but you can't take New Orleans out of the girl," she said. "There are some traditions that are impossible to break."
Like decorating her home for Mardi Gras.
"I like to think of my house as New Orleans North," she joked. "I'm pretty sure I have the best - only - Mardi Gras decor in my whole neighborhood."
But it's not just natives of south Louisiana who recognize Mardi Gras. It's a tradition that has slowly but steadily grown in Tulsa - from king cakes in bakeries to the fourth annual parade in the Blue Dome District.
"I hope we can get Mardi Gras more popular here," Landwerlin said, noting how shocked her parents were when she first moved here that Lundi Gras (Fat Monday), Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and Ash Wednesday weren't holidays.
"No businesses were closed; no one was wearing purple, green and gold; and I was expected to go to work," she said.
Most folks are still expected to go to work, of course, but there's a lot more to do here on Mardi Gras than there used to be.
Fat Tuesday, Tulsa style
Every year the size of the Mardi Gras parade in the Blue Dome has grown. This year, more than 30 floats have registered, an increase over last year, said Amanda Williams, a spokeswoman for McNellie's Group.
And this is also the first year that S & J Oyster Co., one of Tulsa's former Mardi Gras mainstays, is back in business - in Mardi Gras central, no less.
"We are back in a big way," said Christopher Stevens, general manager for the revived restaurant. "For years and years we owned Mardi Gras in Tulsa. We have taken a little hiatus, but we are back in Tulsa stronger than ever, in my opinion, in the Blue Dome District where business is booming."
Stevens worked as a bartender at the restaurant's Brookside location for 10 years before leaving to work for EMSA ambulance service for 15 years. He remembers going to S & J's on the day they closed - Nov. 11, 2004 - a date that's easy to remember because he kept the receipt and a menu.
"We have lots of old friends who come in now, but we are seeing lots of new faces," Stevens said. "We are getting to know the next generation of customers."
Michael Denson, who co-owns the restaurant with Bill Parkey, joined S & J in the late 1980s. He's watched as Tulsa has taken a greater interest in the holiday over the years.
"At one point, we had the biggest Mardi Gras party in town," Denson said. "Now I am seeing more and more decorations on the windows of businesses."
What's sparked Tulsa's interest in Mardi Gras?
"I just think people have found another reason to party," Denson said. "It's a chance to let go of stuff, start over with new beginnings."
At Hebert's Specialty Meats, 2101 E. 71st St., Cajun Ed Richard has created a virtual museum to all things Cajun.
Hebert's specializes in south Louisiana food, including etouffee, gumbo, fried gator and turducken. It also offers specialty Cajun items such as barbecue and hot sauces, beans, and spices. New Orleans transplants flock to Hebert's to sip chicory, devour beignets and talk about home.
But those outside of Tulsa have also discovered this little authentic corner of Louisiana tucked deep inside the Sooner state line. The restaurant ships its specialty foods across the country. This Christmas, Herbert's had three specialty food items for sale in the Neiman Marcus catalogue.
Hebert's is always a vision of purple, gold and green - decked out in Mardi Gras beads and feathered masks.
"Yes, Tulsa is getting more and more Mardi Gras friendly," said Denise Meyer Kraemer, a native of Metairie, La., whose mother would start frying chicken at 4 a.m. Fat Tuesday to take to the parade - along with a playpen for her brothers and a cooler, plus a cot for a makeshift sofa. Kraemer said she has even noticed Mardi Gras stuff at Walmart.
Local entrepreneur Elliot Nelson, whose McNellie's Group helped spearhead the first Mardi Gras parade, believes the carnival season is becoming more important here.
"We've become a revitalized urban community full of young professionals seeking more cultural activities," he said. "Because of that, Mardi Gras and the celebration thereof has become a successful event for downtown that continues to grow."
About 40 years ago, though, "Mardi Gras hadn't made it north of Highway 90," Louisiana native Paula Settoon said. "Now it's as far north as Tulsa. My theory is that in 40 more years we'll take Canada."
When she moved here about 20 years ago, she worked at the Tulsa City-County Library and threw beads from the second-floor balcony ("before we opened, of course"), after which she and her co-workers would eat the king cake a friend of hers in New Orleans would ship overnight.
Otherwise, back then, no one around here had heard of king cakes, it seemed, and not many were familiar with Mardi Gras.
Now, you see king cakes in a variety of shops, Settoon said.
"Tulsa seems to be where Shreveport and Monroe were in the late '80s and early '90s in regard to Mardi Gras," Settoon said of the more northern Louisiana cities, which at one time did not celebrate Mardi Gras. Now they have parades and balls.
As a kid, Landwerlin thought the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade seemed "boring" because no one threw anything.
"I guess in most cities, parades are just that - parades," she said. "No throws, no flambeaux handlers, no hand-painted coconuts being handed to you from the riders. How sad."
Recipe for Mardi Gras
Of course, Mardi Gras is more than just parades.
Part of it, at least for Kate Canales Locke, involves some killer headwear.
As her husband travels to New Orleans regularly for business, they occasionally go to Mardi Gras a couple weekends before Fat Tuesday itself. This year, they're going for the big day.
"We come home with about 50 pounds of beads each year," Locke said. "It's great fun."
While she's there, she'll be wearing a hat she festooned with feathers and plastic babies like the ones hidden in king cakes.
"It's traveling on the plane with me in a hat box that I will carry onboard," she said. "My sister-in-law and I spent eight hours assembling it."
For her husband, she made a vest covered in 288 doubloons from various parades.
For those remaining in Tulsa for Mardi Gras, they can capture the carnival spirit in multiple ways, Landwerlin said. Her list of Mardi Gras must-haves includes king cake, real Mardi Gras music, beads ("the good ones," she said, which made us think of the ones you can buy at Hebert's) and cocktails.
"If possible, make it a daiquiri, she said. "Pretend you got it at a drive-through." (Yes, you can find drive-through daiquiri shops in the New Orleans area.)
Serve fried chicken or a muffaletta from either McAlister's or Jason's delis, said Kraemer, who makes gumbo, crawfish etouffee or jambalaya.
"We still try to eat fried chicken on Mardi Gras here in Tulsa and have one or two king cakes every year," she said. "I either make them, or we have them shipped from Haydel's Bakery in New Orleans."
Said Landwerlin: "Last but not least, you must have a good and carefree attitude. One of the best things about Mardi Gras is the spirit of New Orleans that is palpable during this time of year. When we say 'Laissez les bon temps rouler' (let the good times roll), we mean it."
Tulsa Mardi Gras events
Blue Dome District's Fourth Annual Mardi Gras Parade
7 p.m. Tuesday, sponsored by McNellie's Group, Oklahomans for Equality and Blue Dome Merchant's Association.
Starts at First Street and Elgin Avenue, wraps around the Blue Dome District and ends at Second Street and Elgin Avenue.
For information about parade entries, contact Alyvia Rogers at 918-582-2035 or email@example.com
S & J Oyster Co., 308 E. First St.
11 a.m. to midnight Tuesday. Drink and food specials. Hurricanes, hand grenades, oysters and more. Costume-only balcony, beer garden and plenty of live music and entertainment to follow up Blue Dome's Mardi Gras Parade.
Doc's Wine & Food, 3509 S. Peoria Ave.
Mardi Gras Party, Cajun food specials throughout the day, including crawfish and po boy sandwiches. Live music and extended hours until midnight Tuesday.
Original Print Headline: Purple, gold and Green Country
Jason Ashley Wright 918-581-8483 Nicole Marshall Middleton 918-581-8459 firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo illustration by CHRISTOPHER SMITH/Tulsa World
Women wearing masks give away beads to the crowd during the 2011 Mardi Gras Parade in the Blue Dome District in downtown Tulsa. JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World