Tuesday, February 20, 2007

In Memory of New Orleans, part II, Mardi Gras

I didn’t grow up in New Orleans although I was born there and lived the first two years of my life (more or less) on S. Saratoga Street sort of near the Garden District. I grew up to the north of Lake Pontchartrain, in a small paper mill town of about ten thousand located on the Pearl River (the border of Louisiana and Mississippi) right at the upper tip of the “boot” (Louisiana is boot-shaped). Therefore, although I recall Mardi Gras celebrations from New Orleans proper, this is more of a reminiscence of the general area than the big city.

Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, is the final celebration before Ash Wednesday, or the beginning of the Catholic season of Lent, which is basically a preparation for Holy Week, or the religious celebrations surrounding Easter. Although Mardi Gras is really a Catholic Church deal, it is celebrated widely by all denominations in southeastern Louisiana. At any rate, Carnivale is something that is more typically celebrated by the Catholic countries with some occasional join-ins by the local Christian denominations. Mardi Gras is officially a holiday in Louisiana (or it was when I was growing up there) and often we’d get the Monday off beforehand as well.

The history of Mardi Gras in Louisiana really begins with the founding of Louisiana itself, by the French adventurers and explorer brothers Le Moyne, Iberville and Bienville, respectively. My eighth grade history teacher, Coach Butler (I think he was a football coach, but I’m not sure) adopted the ancient technique of teaching Louisiana history by rote. He had us read and rewrite the book (to make sure we’d read it) paragraph by paragraph. It was crude but mostly effective.

Coach Butler had us memorize “facts” which he then helpfully synthesized for us in class. He had a pungent way of speaking. “Founded by crooks, run by crooks, financed by crooks, and finally run by crooks again!”…and he wasn’t wrong. He also had the novel idea of teaching us something useful. So in addition to learning Louisiana’s major crops (cotton, soybeans, sugarcane, rice) and exports (oil) we also learned how to do our taxes. He had us do the basic tax forms for if we were married, single, with and without dependents. That and balancing checkbooks (3rd grade I think) were the only very practical things I recall learning pre-high school!

From my hazy understanding of colonizing in the Americas, there were two sorts of people that had a hand in these imperial ventures, the financiers and the diplomat generals. Iberville and his brother Bienville fit into the latter category. Iberville was the older brother and had been an agent pursuing French interest in Canada before ever ending up in Louisiana (which was named by the French explorer de la Salle) and founding a bunch of towns. The colony was a bit of disaster and had trouble maintaining its meager population due to disease.

The first major financier of mention for Louisiana was a man named Antoine Crozat, who was granted the royal monopoly by the French crown to exploit and extract precious metals which he hoped to find near Mexico (Coach Butler pronounced his name AntWINE). That didn’t work out. Then there was an interlude with the financier and salesman John Law from the Company of the West, who basically financed Louisiana. This didn’t work out either (eventually, he went bankrupt) and later the French government used the colony as a dumping ground and sent over criminals, indentured servants, and “200 women of questionable virtue” to add to the population.

It was never clear to me what, exactly, these men had wanted out of Louisiana to begin with since it didn’t have the fur trade of the north, the watery coastal areas were prone to disastrous flooding, and many of the major cash crops at the time like cotton and sugar cane were not easily grown there (not till modern drainage methods and farming).

Louisiana’s purpose evolved into simply being a strategic marker in the geopolitical gamesmanship of France and Britain.

Now it’s successful only as a tourist trap. So it goes.

Bienville himself eventually became the governor of Louisiana and founded the city of New Orleans in the crescent turn of the Mississippi River (hence New Orleans’s original nickname, “the Crescent City”). Bienville and his brother are credited with bringing Catholic traditions, including the Lenten festival of Mardi Gras to Louisiana.

Here he is in this picture:

The private New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations are the balls and parties of the Mardi Gras Krewes. The Krewes are basically social clubs, often with other philanthropic causes and purposes. The Krewes themselves were and probably still are typically made up of the rich and ruling elite of New Orleans and even, I might hazard a guess, of my own humble hometown. I think the original New Orleans krewes like Rex (one of the oldest) or Comus date to the 19th century at least (and possibly echo earlier Mardi Gras traditions). They were supposedly based on the practices of the French Court and although this is possible, I think they could only have been some kind of parody. From what I recall, the Krewes elect monarchs (typically a king and queen) from their number and hold a series of parties and balls in which the Krewes “hold court” and some of the bigger and older ones, like Comus and Rex, actually have a joint courtly invitation or something like that with each other. Pomp and circumstance combined with masked balls, very elaborate costumes, and probably a fair amount of drinking. Although I can’t honestly say whether the private balls of the Krewes are anything like the drink-soaked crowds of tourists out on the street.

At any rate, membership in the Krewes for some of the older ones like Comus and Rex used to be restricted by family relations, and I suppose, the traditional “elite” connections. Others appear to be restricted by sex or other specific qualifications. For example the Krewe of Isis was all female while the Krewe of Sparta was all male. There was some controversy over club restrictions at one point about ten years ago, but I believe since that since the Krewes are private clubs, the federal courts allowed it and the Supreme Court hasn’t accepted a case against them. I always thought the Zulu Krewe was the coolest, but I think it was because they handed out gold painted coconuts during their parade!

The public side of the Mardi Gras celebrations are the parades which are run, organized, and staffed by the Krewes. These parades are vehicle after vehicle of fantastically decorated floats, in all sorts of shapes and sizes inspired by pretty much anything and everything and staffed by the Krewes themselves in full regalia (which can be quite impressive). It’s a glittering spectacle and combined with handouts of trinkets such as doubloons (very shiny metallic fake money with the Krewe name and year), cups, beads (very colorful and some, to a childish eye, looking like real pearls), and other unique toys (I remember getting a rubber snake one year) the parades are something out of a child’s dream. One is supposed to stand on the sidelines and scream, “Hey throw me something mister” and then get pelted happily by the goods.

I wasn’t all that aware of the drinking or debauchery associated with Mardi Gras. I think if you’re a kid and you’re not interested, those things are more or less invisible to you. I do remember some older people annoying me once near a New Orleans parade because they smelled very bad (they were drunk).

And as a little aside, I think most outside interpretations of the “sugar beads” (or the really nice beads that are also part of the parade trinket repertoire) have gotten it all wrong. Current interpretations are that in order to obtain them, women are supposed to show off certain feminine body parts located in pairs within the torso region. As I child, I was always told (and not by folks who were trying to shelter me either) that the appropriate etiquette to obtain sugar beads was to kiss the person proffering them. That sounded okay to me then although in retrospect, perhaps showing body parts is less personal!

I still prefer the kissing idea. Perhaps because as a kid I always imagined they meant kissing on the cheek. It seemed friendly rather than crass.

My hometown had its own Mardi Gras parade with a total of two “Krewes” that I can recall. I think one was MCCA (not sure what that stands for) and I dimly remember one called “Sparta”. There are probably more of them now. My mother told me how they picked their respective monarchs. She said that the members got together and gave money bids for how much each was willing to spend on the parties. The person who gave the highest bid was elected ruler. I don’t know if that’s really how it worked, but it seemed like a very sensible idea to me at the time!

I’m sure that drinking did figure heavily in these local balls and parties but I can say with certainty that there was also cake. King Cake is a significant feature of the time leading up to Mardi Gras and is traditionally served at Mardi Gras parties. It’s a yeast “cake” much like a sweet roll often with raisins and/or cinnamon fillings. It fits into the bigger tradition of other Catholic countries’ “Twelfth Night cakes” or sweetbreads that are served on twelfth night (the 12th day of Christmas and January 6th or the Ephiphany). There’s a version of this cake in Mexico too.

King Cake is served beginning after 12th night and all the way up to Mardi Gras. From what I recall, folks would bring king cakes to classes every week (typically on Friday) and everyone would have a piece of the cake that was decorated with a sugar glaze frosting with dyed sugar in the three Mardi Gras colors of green, purple, and yellow. They all stand for something (I think) but I’ve forgotten what over the years.

In one piece was hidden “the baby”, literally a little tiny molded plastic naked baby, that you had to be careful not to crunch down on while munching cake. Whoever got “the baby” had to bring next week’s King Cake. Some traditions tie the receipt of the baby with becoming the “king” or “queen” of that particular party with obligations tied to providing next time’s feast. As a child I only fixated on the idea that if you got the baby, you had to bring cake next time. It seemed a worthy tradition and one I did not think I was leaving behind when I left.

Although people where I live now are aware of Mardi Gras, and even go out to celebrate it, it’s not really the same holiday I recall. I discovered that Mardi Gras elsewhere doesn’t come with all the pretty trinkets and cake!

From my childhood Mardi Gras treasure trove I have only one sugar bead left.

And it still looks like real pearls to me.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Let Them Eat Election Cake!

I’ve only run for office once. It was for a class election in elementary school.

The only other time I’ve held office was for a student government position in grad school which I admit to finding faintly embarrassing. Since I was appointed and not elected, I like to think it shouldn’t count against me. Besides, I’ve always thought there are utterly powerless folks in a political system and then there are student governments vying for one step below that rung. I had a cause and a few friends in the org at the time.

I ran for fifth grade class president because I was required to run for an office; actually, the entire class was required to run for office. When the choices are president, vice-president, secretary of state, and treasurer, it’s pretty obvious that every kid is going to run for president. This was facilitated by the fact that the elections were held one at a time. So the first election was held for president, once that was decided, the vice-presidential elections, and so forth until all the offices were filled. In that context, pretty much everyone ran for every office till they were all filled.

Ostensibly, the exercise was part of our civics lesson in how U.S. national elections and the Electoral College work. In fact, I think it may have been imported from California. My sister and I had spent a brief four months living in Cupertino, California in fourth grade and our teacher, Ms. Nile (whose daily rendition of the song Waltzing Matilda I will never forget), had assigned each class member two states and held presidential elections. The Regnart Elementary School ‘s version was correct and instead of requiring us all to run for office, class members could field president and vice-presidential teams and then run more or less like the real thing. I believe a girl named Mardell won the presidency. She was nice, easy-going, and smart. I voted for her. Too bad real politics aren’t like that. Another girl, “M2” was a more typical candidate. I learned a lot from her. For example, it’s the first time I learned that there was an alternative meaning to the word “gay” that didn’t mean happy and carefree. M2 liked using the term a lot. Typically with people who weren’t voting for her (and that would have been the majority). Mrs. Roth and I troubled her by not thinking it was an insult, even with the secondary meaning attached. She also found “ya’ll” (a southernism for “you all”) inexplicably funny as well. We thought it was obviously superior to the whiny and nasal California phrase “you guys”.

Back we went to the vast metropolis of Bogalusa, Louisiana.

After moving back, my sis and I told our fifth grade teacher Mrs. Rawls, about the assignment. She must have liked it (or possibly already had a similar idea) because the next thing we knew, the entire fifth grade was having elections. Each class member was assigned two states. I forget which ones I got assigned at this point, but I do remember who had California! And instead of fielding teams, the fifth grade teachers made us all run. And they offered the full complement of offices with real duties attached. This wasn’t a bad strategy when you consider that there would be few stigmas to losing if EVERYONE was required to run for an office.

As an aside on a similar theme, I have pondered how elections would work if office-holders were selected by lottery, like jury duty. You would get slackers and people who “forgot” to open the envelope. But you might get a little less of the power-hungry smarminess. Perhaps some people would rise to the occasion. Or not.

Anyways, the salient point is that everyone ran for president, including me. We all had to give campaign speeches and then talk fellow classmates into voting for us. I remember preparing my speech in the backyard, while I walked around and around the vegetable garden and the rose bush. I spent a lot of time on it. And I’d already made sure that my campaign promises of obtaining water and bathroom passes were okay with the teacher. I thought it was pretty good. It was at least a handwritten page long. I took it to my grandfather (a southern Baptist minister) and read it aloud to him. He was very quiet. Then he said he liked it. He then proceeded to give me one of his rambling but potent speeches on the seductive and fickle nature of political power.

By way of background, Granddaddy once told me that he thought I could do anything, and he’s probably the only person who could say something like that and make it sound like a warning.

I told him we were required to run for office. That seemed to mollify him.

Of course, to be fair to him, I’ve always been fascinated by political power. I should say that I use that term loosely. For instance, I entertained the notion (very briefly at about age 9) of being a preacher because I liked the idea of having a lot of people listen to me. I admired that kind of influence. Granddaddy doubtless recognized this tendency and took care to warn me about the dangers of pride and ambition.

Years later, after my grandfather died, I discovered that the only Shakespeare he had in his considerable (for a modestly paid Southern preacher) library was a worn copy of Macbeth. It didn’t surprise me.

Back in the classroom, I remember everyone trooping up to the front of class and giving their election speeches. Some speeches were forced, with a lot of ums and ahs, others were jokes done in pure fun, and still others made wild promises like “no homework ever again!”. I remember going around the room and collecting votes along with everyone else. It was kind of odd really because everyone was running so you had to ask people to vote against themselves. Interestingly, very few people voted for themselves, probably because the voting was public. I think I voted for a girl named Angela. She voted for me.

We had a run-off between the two top presidential finalists, me and a boy named Donric.

I won.

At first I thought it was my great speech and I was proud.

Then I overheard one boy saying, “I voted for [Pretzel Bender] because she’s pretty."

Politics have never been the same for me after that.

Darn it, they were supposed to vote for me because I had real campaign promises and a good speech!

I wanted people to vote for me for reasons that I found compelling, but I discovered that elections don’t really work that way. You take whatever support you can get, and you don’t get too picky about the reasons people have for supporting you so long as they do. Only getting the position really matters.

I found that I had unreasonable expectations for the elections process. I only wanted to be elected to office on my own very narrowly defined terms. Even now, despite all of my anthropological training and close-hand observations, I remain irrational about how elections should work.

Possibly it’s because I still believe in federal self-government but get depressed about the degrading electoral practices which seem to end up as the lowest form of marketing on the planet.

Of course, Madison (my favorite federalist, sorry Mrs. Roth) had big ideas about intra-state factionalism and the means to limit its negative effects thru a federal system here in Federalist Paper No. 10. In fact, having read a lot of social theory on faction, I still think Mr. Madison’s is one of the more thoughtful and clearly written pieces out there.

Unfortunately, he remains silent on the nitty gritty of the electoral process and its issues. I dimly recall that there were times in American history when it was considered proper and appropriate to get everyone drunk and then take them to the polls. We live in more sober times.

And I’ve clearly lived too privileged a life to persist in thinking that I don’t need to use every advantage I can possibly obtain (including a glossy coat!) in the competition.

Incidentally, there were plenty of prettier girls in the class (who didn’t kick boys who pulled their hair) if they were going to go on such an arbitrary measure!

My sister, Mrs. Roth, won the vice-presidential elections. After all the elections were over we all had to give little acceptance speeches in preparation for the official inauguration (and more civics lessons) the next day.

I told the class I’d bring cake. That may sound strange to many people, but to a southerner, it might not. Potluck was typically a part of public celebrations and cake was a big feature of that. I don’t recall a single event, school or church, that didn’t involve cake in some way. It’s how I was brought up.

It turns out I accidentally revived an older American tradition of serving Election Cake. Apparently election cakes were part of the celebrations and food items surrounding election days in colonial times. This tradition might be inherited from Britain, I don’t know. Election cakes were typically fruit cakes and, like all early cakes, required some kind of yeast in order to rise. So if you tried one now you’d probably think it was more like sweet fruit bread and be terribly disappointed that it wasn’t remotely like the much beloved American butter cake.

I found out about the existence of election cakes recently when I got this interesting old cookbook for xmas from my father and step-mother, Ice Cream and Cakes, found within the Katherine Bitting collection of food history at the Library of Congress.

Here are some pictures of the front and side of my book. It’s fairly elaborately decorated, which I understand is common for books of the period.

Written by “an American”, the book is full of old and interesting looking recipes, including two versions of election cake and two versions of federal cake.

Here’s the one for election cake:

I think an early recipe for election cake can be found in the famous Fannie Farmer cookbook from the early 20th century. As you can see it’s pretty similar in idea to the one from my cookbook.

From some minor web sleuthing, it seems clear that federal cake is simply the same old election cake idea but dressed up and named “federal” in honor of the new federal constitution back in 1780s and 90s. Actually, when the new American constitution was passed, I think a lot of rather silly public celebrations in which everything was named “federal” this or that. One mention in book about L’Enfant, the erstwhile and only partial designer of the city of Washington, D.C., mentions a huge federal cake created as a confectionary celebration of the new government (scroll down to paragraph 20 here).

Here’s the federal cake recipe from Ice Cream and Cakes here:

I found another recipe for federal cake on the web here.

My own brief election experience did result in my own election cake. I brought enough lemon butter cake with a lemon sugar frosting for the entire class. I don’t recall much else about my brief time in office, other than that the cake was well received.

Perhaps I would like American election politics better if we revived the tradition of the Election Day holiday complete with Election Cake. Would more people participate if they knew there was cake at the end?

I’d like to think so.

It’s better to end something contentious and often bitter with something sweet!