Heading into Mobile I had no idea what to expect of it honestly. I did not do much research other than reading a few restaurant lists and listening to a few weather forecasts. Yet setting foot on its soil on a Friday evening in September, it immediately felt like a friendly and inviting place.
They call New Orleans the “Big Easy” but my experience with NOLA’s energy wasn’t exactly easy. Mobile, on the other hand, is a a soft unfolding flower of hospitality.
I was in Mobile because a very good friend invited me along to be a bright spot on his work trip. He had to spend a week there doing something worky worky techy techy for an outpost of his company and he hoped that since I had never been to Alabama before I’d like to come on down and give it a good Angel’s worth of exploration. Luckily, my plans for that last weekend of September were non-existent, so I was free to travel down for a 3 night Friday – Monday trip. I even got to fly coach (sad horn sound) because there were literally no seats of higher status available between Seattle and Atlanta on such last minute of a flight.
I arrived late on Friday and we gave the historic downtown a good walk about. We observed the various locals coming out around midnight to start dancing. Being “old” people and both of us slightly limping, Tyler and I proceeded back to our Holiday Inn oasis to get a good night’s sleep and an early start on our Saturday. I fell asleep researching brunch options – but had a hard time finding a place that actually offered food instead of booze for breakfast.
In the morning we got up at sunrise – otherwise known as 9:30am and made it to A Spot of Tea for brunch.
As you can see from above I ordered a breakfast salad followed by some Shrimp n Grits. I believe based on the ticket we received that my salad had us labeled as strange alien people -but it is hard to tell what on earth that ticket said. Needless to say, I was left wondering where all the people in Mobile, Alabama are because it felt like an empty ghost town for a city of nearly 200 thousand people.
The shrimp and cheesy grits with sausage was really tasty though…one could not say the same for Tyler’s sad breakfast of hard scrambled eggs and toast – but he self-admits he eats a very limited and particular diet. I had just forgotten that the big Viking looking man friend in a Carhart shirt was a bit of an off-menu ordering princess.
After breakfast is when we stumbled onto the not so secret heart of Mobile, Alabama by pure accident. We stumbled upon this actually obvious fact via our choice to begin our Saturday cultural tour of the Paris of the South with a tour of the Carnival Museum. Initially we didn’t associate “carnival” with Mardi Gras. We both thought it might be a hilarious homage to “carnies” from small town carnivals across America. But it was clear after one look at the facade and website that this establishment was a museum holding the heart and soul of Mobile Culture – Mardi Gras.
We stumbled in just in time to catch a guided tour from the man who literally wrote the book on Mobile Mardi Gras history L. Craig Roberts. And Craig took us on a wild ride deep into the details of this billion dollar Mobile industry and cultural phenomenon (that happens to employ over 11% of the population of Mobile). Mr. Roberts noted that I was looking at my phone while he was talking, so I said I was a travel writer and taking notes. I wasn’t lying but it made him so excited, I didn’t want to tell him it that my travel writing was currently only this blog. So I didn’t. But there is so much history in Mobile that I do want to pitch a story to somewhere to have a good reason to come back and enjoy the carnival season in Mobile.
Let me summarize what I learned from Craig and the Carnival Museum. For every plastic bead and set of boobs in New Orleans on the cheesy cras strip of Bourbon Street, there is in Mobile an equivalent level of classy activity including white tie & gown balls, and a Royal Coronation involving 20 foot trains of crystals and fur. (Antique fur which spurns a whole antique fur trading economy in Mobile). And as far as I can tell no one is showing their tits in Mobile unless they are working really hard to get one of those 10 invites a mystic society member has to give away to one of the white tie & gown balls. But it is likely unnecessary to trade skin & sex for a ticket, as every single member of the 77 secret societies in Mobile gets to invite 10 people to their ball, and the coronation is a completely public affair.
When I was in NOLA recently I reveled in the royal jewels that were in the City of New Orleans/Mardi Gras museum there, but those “jewels” were nothing in comparison to the capes and crowns and trains that were on display in Mobile. Here, in this sleepy space of Alabama at the mouth of Mobile Bay right off the Gulf of Mexico, is an arts and culture tradition that preserves the towns essence with music, theater, art, parades, pomp & circumstance and royalty. American Royalty is actually to be found in Mobile, Alabama. Who knew that there was more than college football? I admit I didn’t, before this trip. But now I am officially indoctrinated, and once you see it, you start to see Mardi Gras in Mobile everywhere.
It is the town’s life blood, which keeps its heart beating and its people returning, and new lovers of the city adopting it as their new home.
The first Mardi Gras was in 1703 established I believe thanks to Louis XIV (my ancestor) deciding he needed a Southern location to party from Montreal, Canada because Montreal was too cold in Winter to hold carnival. (When my French Canadian ancestors moved south they didn’t make it past Detroit and one made it Portland). But the real traditions that fuel Mobile’s red blood cells didn’t begin until after the Civil War. By the way, Mardi Gras in New Orleans didn’t begin until 1718, 15 years after Mobile (and per Mobile citizens they are just a cheap knock off and always have been). But before we get into that let’s just do a short history of where Mardi Gras aka “carnival” comes from.
Mardi Gras is a Catholic festival, and like all Catholic festivals it came about as a copy/absorption of the Greek pagan festival of Lupercalia a “festival of the sun” where a fatted cow or ox was sacrificed aka a “boeuf gras.” Those who know their religious world history know that the Catholics absorbed pagan festivals in order to convert more followers, so in this case the pagan festival of the sun became a pre-lenten “carnel” aka “farewell to meat” feast and festival. Back in the day when you couldn’t give up alcohol (as the water was so bad you needed to drink alcohol to survive) meat was a luxury to be given up to god during Lent. But during Carnival you could eat all the fatty meat you wanted. Hence Fat Tuesday (all the fatty meat! Tuesday) – the day before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins. So although the Mardi Gras/Carnival festivals are not officially sanctioned by the church, in most Catholic areas and regions of the world they have partook in the party before the fasting quite enthusiastically, except during times of war and revolution.
Mobile was no different as Mardi Gras essentially came to a halt during the Civil War and only a few of the mystic societies survived through it. But a couple did. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the 75 Royal Families came about, a majority of the now 77 mystic societies, parading and other details that are truly what make Mardi Gras for Mobile, including Joe Cain, who now has a whole day and a retinue of mourning widows devoted to him.
The industry that is now Mobile Mardi Gras has evolved since then, but one thing is for sure it is essential to this city’s life and rhythm. I think most of the city exists waiting for Mardi Gras to happen every year, as there are so few people wandering about. It is like there is just space and time waiting to be filled with masked and customed parades of people.
After our serious history lesson, Tyler and I walked down Government street towards the waterfront and took in the Mobile bar association, the probate and estate law court house, Mardi Gras park and the Mobile History Museum – that was doing an exhibit of 22 things that mark the various points in Mobile history. What this exhibit impressed upon me was the fall of the pre-civil war economy and the rise of the post-war shipping and container industry economy of Mobile as a port city (and the wealth that fuels the royal families there now). And how, as a port city to the Gulf of Mexico (filled with shipping and oil) Mobile was able to regain and retain wealth after the death of an agrarian economy built on the backs of slave labor. As a Northerner by birth and a voyeur of Southern culture I can also notice, even in official places, that the period known as Reconstruction to the North is considered and referred to as Occupation in the South.
Next door to the history museum is the replica of the original fort that stood at the location. Inside the fort is the story of the white man’s original occupation of the land and the fighting over said occupied territory by the French and the British.
After a thorough historical lesson we took ourselves to lunch and then a stroll along the waterfront as the maritime museum of industry (the last of our educational stops for the day) closed early.
After a good sit watching the ships float by on the river we sauntered slowly back up Government street in the 80 degree autumn day to our hotel to freshen up and recover from our adventures prior to dinner.
For dinner, I got us reservations at The Noble South. Its menu looked like a perfect combination of farm to table, fancy, but familiar enough that it would be possible for my friend to find something his midwestern palate would allow him to eat.
I was right, there was something for everyone. I didn’t take a picture of Tyler’s short ribs but he reported they were very tasty. I enjoyed my interesting alligator dish and the elevated and creative take on traditional Southern fair with local ingredients.
All in all in was a great day in Mobile, Alabama and I was very glad to have made the long flight across the country from Seattle for the long weekend.