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A guide to Louisiana and New Orleans

Clive Wedderburn February 23, 2015

Mardi Gras celebrations New Orleans

There is no place like N’Awlins (as folks like to call New Orleans) especially during Mardi Gras.

New Orleans and the surrounding state of Louisiana have a particular history that set them apart from other places in the Deep South. Therefore in order to appreciate the spirit of Mardi Gras, it is relevant to understand the wider historical context.
Humble beginnings
In more modern times, visitors to the state remark that there is something timeless, old world and European about Louisiana, present in both the gardens of old plantation houses and within the districts of enigmatic cities. This is because Louisiana has been home to a range of people of different ethnicities since the 18th century, when immigrants began arriving in increasing numbers.
A different brand of southern hospitality
Plantations owners and pioneers, farmers, fishermen and trappers hailed from France, Spain, Germany and Italy, adding to existing contingents of African and Native American people. Subsequent waves of settlers quickly followed; Irish, Greek, Croatian, Cuban, Mexican and Chinese. To say Louisiana is a multi-cultural society is an understatement.
A collision of cultures
Just like the ingredients of homespun Louisiana dishes such as gumbo or jambalaya, every culture had a specific and lasting effect upon the region.
From the Cajuns to the Chitimacha Indians, to the Creoles from West Africa and the Dalmatian fishermen from Croatia, they all brought their own unique customs and traditions and added them to the melting pot.
This brand of southern hospitality has now been distilled over centuries by the waters of the Mississippi, into a single, exotic blend. Nowhere is this more evident than in N’Awlins.
The Spirit of New Orleans
The capital of Louisiana may be Baton Rouge - but the state’s soul is surely held under lock and key in New Orleans. The city began life as a French settlement in 1718 after which it was periodically governed by the Spanish.
Immigrants were first attracted to New Orleans by its comparatively unusual attitude to integration presided over by the Spanish and French who preferred to politically enlist support of the Native American Indians or African Americans, in exchange for civil liberties in order to retain power to govern the city.
Some visitors to New Orleans at the time were surprised by this spirit of inclusion, while others were equally inspired. New Orleans soon earned a reputation as a haven for people seeking escape from persecution; the Acadians (Cajuns) for example who had been evicted from Nova Scotia in Canada found a new home in the districts and bayous (marshlands) surrounding the city.
A city with a difference
Catholicism was also widely practised and French established as the first language. Though this was accepted as a peculiarity in the wider Protestant territories of the South, the city earned a separatist mystique that endures today. N’Awlins was different.
The origins of Mardi Gras
In fact, visitors to the city are still surprised by the old-world effect they find in areas such as the French Quarter, especially during the flamboyant festival called Mardi Gras (which means Fat Tuesday; the last day for eating before fasting for Lent begins). The festival’s roots can be traced all the way back through Europe and France to medieval masquerades in Venice.
Kingcakes of the Mardi Gras
If you visit the city during carnival you will probably come across delicious kingcakes. It was back in 1872 that a group of businessmen decided to honour visiting royalty, the Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff at the first daytime Mardi Gras parade.
They designated the duke’s colours (purple, green and gold) as the official colours of the carnival. Purple stands for justice, green represents faith and gold symbolises power.
These colours are now woven-deep into the fabric of New Orleans society and are a typical example of how European culture has always been closely connected to this enigmatic city of the Deep South.
To celebrate Mardi Gras in style, citizens of New Orleans bake kingcake as gifts for neighbours and friends. Kingcakes references the biblical journey of the 3 wise kings and mark the religious festival of Epiphany. Hundreds of thousands are eaten in New Orleans every year. A Mardi Gras party wouldn’t be a Mardi Gras party without kingcakes.
New beginnings
New Orleans holds a special place in the heart of American culture, especially since the devastation wreaked upon it by Hurricane Katrina.  Yet this too has only added to a continuing spirit of resistance and made story-tellers of every citizen who experienced the effects of the storm. It is another layer to be added to the cake, another aspect of the culture that awaits you when you visit New Orleans and Louisiana. Even through adversity, there is no place quite like N’Awlins