You know all about the beads, parades, masks and mayhem of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But did you know that the country’s first Mardi Gras celebration was held not in the Crescent City, but 125 miles east, in Mobile, Alabama? It’s true, and there’s more: snack-lovers who get there in time for the parades can seriously rack up on free MoonPies.
Photo Credit: William Berry / AJC Staff
Here’s the backstory: In 1703, Mobile was the capital of French Louisiana. French Catholic settlers brought with them their “Carnival” traditions of feasting, revelry and merriment on the days preceding Ash Wednesday, then fasting during the somber, sacrificial season of Lent that immediately follows. Fifteen years later, the territory’s capital moved to the newly founded New Orleans, as did the Mardi Gras tradition. But it’s well-documented that Mobile’s parade was first held in 1711, when 16 men pushed a cart carrying a large papier-mâché cow's head down the street, kicking off a big outdoors party.
Mike Dow, former Mobile mayor, tosses moon pies to the Mardi Gras crowd; Photo Credit: Mobile Register
The founding of New Orleans and movement of Mardi Gras didn’t stop the party. Mobile’s parades evolved into elaborate, multi-weekend affairs, mostly happening between Saturday and the Shrove Tuesday sendoff before Ash Wednesday, just like in NoLa, with the city’s mystic societies and participating parade “krewes” spending the entire year planning their float themes, costumes, and “throws” – those coveted trinkets they toss to spectators. But while beads, candy, stuffed animals and coins are popular throws, just like in New Orleans, Mobile krewes are known for hurling a particular Southern delicacy: the chocolate-dipped marshmallow and graham cracker sandwich named after our planet's only permanent natural satellite.
According to Judi Gulledge, who as executive director of the Mobile Carnival Association runs the Carnival Museum, the MoonPie tradition began in the 1940s and 1950s, when float organizers wanted to toss something softer into the crowds than Cracker Jack boxes.
"The MoonPie became a staple throw in Mobile in the early 60s," said Gulledge. "Members from a local ladies' organization were in Chattanooga at a convention meeting and ran across some MoonPies, and thought they would make a great throw. The reasoning? They are soft and have some weight to them, so when the ladies' tossed them, they had some leverage. They were looking for something economical, and MoonPies checked all of the boxes. They brought them back to Mobile and it caught on as a novelty."
Now, an estimated 500,000 MoonPies from Chattanooga Bakery are thrown each year.
Members of the Polka Dots mystic society hurl moon pies and beads to parade-goers along Government Street during the second night of the 1997 Carnival season in Mobile, Ala.; Photo Credit: AP Photo / Mobile Press Register, John David Mercer
“While MoonPies are definitely unique to Mobile, most of our other food traditions, like King Cake, beignets and seafood, we share with New Orleans,” explained Mobile native and local caterer Clifton Morrissette. He hosts a large Mardi Gras street party on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, where more than 3,000 people line up for his fried oysters, rack of lamb, boiled shrimp and other Southern treats.
Mardi Gras isn’t just another holiday in Mobile--it’s a way of life. While the city’s festivities are less boisterous than those of their rowdy western neighbors, they don’t lack for community or heart. “Our Mardi Gras is definitely more intimate than New Orleans’, but we think that makes it even more special,” said Tara Zieman, marketing and communications manager for Visit Mobile, the official marketing organization for the city, “especially because ours is the original. “Basically, it’s a non-stop party downtown,” said Morrissette. “The restaurants and street parties go for 18, 20 hours a day. We’re all definitely ready for Lent by the time it rolls around. And then we start planning for next year.”
“Plus, it’s more family friendly,” Zieman continued. “I love watching the parades, seeing college kids and families with young children, and older people who’ve been doing this for fifty years all lined up on the street together. There’s spirit and vibe, and an electricity to it all unlike any other time of year in the city.”
Photo Credit: Tad Denson
If you can get there early enough, visit Mobile’s Carnival Museum, which documents the holiday’s 300-year history, before hitting the festivities. The museum includes more than dozen rooms and is filled with historical photographs, elaborate costumes and crowns, parade videos and even a life-sized interactive replica float.
The Sunday before Fat Tuesday is also host to another singular Mobile Mardi Gras tradition, Joe Cain Day. The holiday’s namesake is credited with developing most of the city’s longstanding Mardi Gras traditions. And unlike the city’s other parades, which are limited to members of Mobile’s longstanding and often-secret societies, the Joe Cain Day Procession, or “people’s parade,” is open to anyone, though now requires advance sign-up for safety and permit reasons.
The parade kicks off at 2:30 p.m. with Joe Cain’s Merry Widows, who wear long black funeral gowns and dark veils, and lead a procession of more than 100,000 to Joe Cain’s gravesite, where they place wreaths on his tombstone and toss black beads into the crowds. The procession continues to Cain’s original house on 906 August Street in Oakleigh Historic District.
“It’s my favorite day of Mardi Gras,” said Zieman.
The Knights of Revelry parade passes downtown Mobile, Ala., on Feb 28, 2006; Photo Credit: AP Photo/Mobile Register, Mike Kittrell
If you choose to simply spectate Joe Cain and other parades throughout the weekend into Tuesday, Zieman recommends Royal and Government Streets for their wide vantage points. The city has six official parade routes, and there are more than 14 parking lots downtown, so there’s ample opportunity to watch bands, floats and costumed masses rolling by, and of course, catch as many round, marshmallow-y dessert snacks as possible.
Can’t make it to Mobile this year? No worries; you can still celebrate in style from the comfort of your kitchen with this recipe for mini homemade MoonPies from Food Network.