NEW ORLEANS — For hours before a parade of glittering floats rolls down stately St. Charles Avenue, Carnival watchers are hard at work. Ice chests filled with food and drink soon give way to fired-up grills in the Mardi Gras equivalent to the world's biggest tailgate party.
While boozing it up and flashing flesh get the headlines, the food cooked up or hauled to the parade routes is as much a part of Fat Tuesday as begging for beads and toasting the make-believe royalty with a cold one.
As the Carnival season wraps up with four days of almost nonstop parades, for residents — many of whom will give up their favorites for Lent — it's a great reason to take their food to the streets where the fun is measured in the consumption of everything from gumbo to hot dogs to fried chicken, topped off with king cake and washed down with beer.
"Well, maybe a bloody mary for breakfast, but that or beer for sure," said Barbara Spangenberg, a New Orleans native whose family has been staking out a spot along the parade route for generations.
"It's like a military operation — getting your spot, getting your food and ice chests there, making sure you have chairs and ladders," she said. "And a lot of food, because people eat all day long."
The streets are closed to traffic before the parades, but building crowds make driving in the area all but impossible long before that.
For Mardi Gras, the last day of Carnival, many begin arriving at the parade route just after midnight when the streetcars are shut down. By dawn, the wide median where the streetcars usually roll has become a village of tents, canopies and tarps to shelter chairs, cots, ice chests, tables and grills as celebrants settle in for a long day.
Soon the tantalizing scents of grilled meat, simmering gumbo and spicy jambalaya drift up and down the street. People drink beer from cans and fancy beverages from Mardi Gras cups — the large plastic glasses that are prize catches from floats. King cakes with purple, green and gold icing sweat in their plastic wrappers, while kids lick sticky fingers before asking for another slice.
"I start off with a batch of sausages," said Dewayne Swanson, 46, who has been cooking at Mardi Gras for more than 20 years. "I do crawfish sausage, deer sausage and boudin. Once they start sizzling I have complete strangers coming up asking for some."
By the time Swanson's guests finish up the spicy sausages and he switches to pork chops and chicken on the grill, and gets the red beans and jambalaya on to heat, Zulu, one of the two major parades on Tuesday is rolling by.
"I hand them up some food, and they hand me down some coconuts," Swanson said with a laugh, referring to the decorated coconuts that are prized throws from Zulu.
Joann Lammons, a New Orleans native, and her husband Richard now travel in from Houston for Mardi Gras, packing their car with the huge quantities of food they count on to feed the people who stop by the place they set up for parades.
"We start cooking and freezing it well in advance," Joann Lammons said. "We have food for the parades from Saturday on."
The Lammons will be offering friends and family that stop by their parade spot chicken and andouille gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya, pulled pork sandwiches, and a couple of specialties from Texas — chili and tortilla soup.
"I tell people in Houston who don't really get what it's all about that it's just like a huge tailgate party," Lammons said. "People show up and have a drink with you, or something to eat. You might not have seen them since last Mardi Gras, but you know you'll always see them then."
By the time Joe Scheuermann and his family show up at the Mardi Gras spot they've staked out for close to 50 years, they will have fed over 200 people at the Endymion and Thoth parades on the weekend before Fat Tuesday.
"We start cooking about 7:30 Friday morning and finish about 10:30 that night," said Scheuermann, who chose his house for its proximity to the weekend parades. "And on top of that everyone brings food. Then people just come and go all day during the parades."
Mardi Gras day seems almost quiet after the big weekend.
"My son gets to the route about 3 a.m. We get there later with the ice chests and food," he said. "We end up cooking from Friday through Tuesday, but it's worth it. I believe if you grow up in New Orleans you should enjoy it."