Taste of Freedom: Carnival - #108

BURT WOLF: Most of our holidays and celebrations were developed to mark the cycles of nature and they have taken place in traditional forms for centuries.

They bind the past to the present and predict the future. They are a basic part of every society that has ever existed.

But when these ceremonies arrived in America, they started to change. No longer controlled by convention these ancient celebrations began to evolve. They had gotten their first Taste of Freedom and they would never be the same.


BURT WOLF: Carnival has its roots in an ancient Roman holiday called the Feast of Saturn.  It was used as an escape valve to help reduce the tensions between the “rich and famous” and the “never to be rich and famous”.  It created an outlet for the frustrations of a major part of the society.  There were many more Roman slaves than there were Roman rulers.  The Feast of Saturn distracted the slaves from doing the math and trying to take control.  When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Feast of Saturn was converted into Carnival.  The last day of Carnival became known as Fat Tuesday, or in French... Mardi Gras.  It’s the last opportunity for the Catholic community to live it up before the forty days of Lent that are marked with fasting and abstinence.  Carnival was imported to the new world by the original French and Spanish settlers.  And even today, many of the rituals of the New Orleans Mardi Gras are the same ones that are followed in France and Spain. The ethnic origins of New Orleans are still here, still respected, and still presented as dramatically as ever.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is packed with the ancient elements of Carnival.  And one of the most important ingredients is the theme of importing something from some other time or place. One way to take in something from someplace else is to bring up “the past”.  The past usually feels like it’s in some other place, and during Carnival it is constantly dragged out and put on view.  Most of the groups have names from the past, taken from Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The earliest forms of Carnival go all the way back to ancient Rome.  They were designed to keep the masses happy and in line and amused.  And one of the ways they did that was to throw things to them.

BURT WOLF: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  In New Orleans hundreds of thousands of plastic necklaces and coins called doubloons are flung from the floats to the crowds below.  The town is filled with people wearing the necklaces, and fingering the coins that they have managed to catch during the ritual.  The hope is that everyone will feel that they are getting, or at least have an opportunity of getting, a piece of the good life.  The guys on the floats have everything they want.  They’re “up there,” moving through life.  The watchers, on the other hand, are more or less locked in place, watching life go by.  The idea is that distributing the trinkets will help keep the watchers amused and in place.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It’s a perfect Carnival joke.  It celebrates the American myth of equal opportunity and success through the accumulation of material wealth -- and yet at the very same time it makes fun of it.  And that’s what Carnival is all about -- making fun of those things which are normally respected.

BURT WOLF: The first documented Carnival procession in New Orleans, with masks in the street, took place in 1837.  This film is from the 1920s. From the beginning it was a mixture of French, Spanish and Portuguese traditions, African rituals and the masked balls that were held by the aristocratic families of the Confederacy.  In many cases, the pageants of the past made fun of life in New Orleans.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Over the years, there’s been a change in the content of the festival.  These days a New Orleans Mardi Gras float is most likely to make fun of something that is safe, something that is already in the process of being joked about.  It’s a distinct feature of North American culture to institute change without revolution, and these days the New Orleans Mardi Gras functions within that format.  It’s a lot like the cooking -- hot and spicy, but not so hot or so spicy as to offend the millions of tourists who come here each year.

BURT WOLF: The carnival season officially begins on January 6th, which is known as Twelfth Night, Epiphany or King’s Day. It marks the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of a new season called Shrovetide. The word “shrove” means to hear confession and be given absolution. On Shrove Tuesday, Catholics confess their sins and cleanse their souls in preparation for Lent. Church bells ring and remind people to get “shriven”.

Shrovetide lasts from January 6th to Mardi Gras. It’s a time of feasting in preparation for the fasting of Lent. In New Orleans, Shrovetide kicks off with the Reveler’s Ball. The season ends with Mardi Gras which is French for “Fat Tuesday”. During Mardi Gras you stuff yourself with the foods that you will be giving up during Lent.

ARTHUR HARDY ON CAMERA: New Orleans is a French city and Mardi Gras is a French celebration.  I mean our version of it came directly from Paris.  New Orleans was founded in 1718, but in 1619 French explorer Iberville was coming up the Mississippi River.  And it was March 3, 1699 and the spot that he camped out on at night, he named Point Du Mardi Gras because he knew back in Paris, Mardi Gras was being celebrated.  So that's how it came to North America.  And after New Orleans was settled, it didn't take long for the, the new citizens to remember those celebrations of Paris and start informally celebrating and then eventually formalizing it into an annual ritual.

It was a big deal immediately.  It had been celebrated in homes and on the streets randomly for years.  And it actually became quite violent.  So in the 1850s the press called for an end to Mardi Gras.  They said "this is an uncivilized celebration for these enlightened times."  Fortunately some gentlemen got together and formed a parade and a Krewe called The Mistick Of Comus and it was an instant success.  Press around the world hailed it as something that's worthy of attention.  So visitors started coming before the Civil War to see Mardi Gras.  It started with one parade, it has grown to a celebration now of 60 parades held over a 12 day period.  We did some calculations and found out that it is 1,063 floats, 588 bands, 304 miles, if you added up all the playgrounds on the street for 205 hours.  So it's probably the world's largest celebration.


BURT WOLF: Anthropologists love to discuss Carnival because it is a feast that sets out to turn everything inside out and upside down. All festivals do this to a certain extent, but Carnival is more dedicated to changing roles than almost any other celebration. It’s always gross, indecent, and openly obsessed with sex. It demands excess of all kinds: over eating, over drinking, noise, expense, and size.

It makes fun of the famous and powerful. It also takes people who usually have little chance to be creative in their everyday lives and gives them a chance to show their inventiveness. It also gives them a chance to complain about the things that bother them. If you take a good look at what’s going on at Carnival you will quickly learn what is really annoying the population.

There is no royalty in North America, no real kings or queens, so having a king and queen of Carnival is part of the burlesque. In New Orleans many of the floats have their own kings and queens in addition to Rex the official King of the season. During Carnival, America has an oversupply of royalty.


MAN PARTICIPANT ON CAMERA: Happy Mardi Gras everyone.

BURT WOLF: The entire organization of Carnival in New Orleans revolves around exclusive groups, private dances, and private balls.

WOMAN PARTICIPANT ON CAMERA: Greetings from New Orleans.

BURT WOLF: The groups are called Krewes and they have their own secret rules. The oldest krewe is ruled by Comus, whose real identity is known to only a few insiders. He remains masked, even at his own ball. That kind of secrecy enhances the power of being an insider. An ancient aspect of Carnival is making fun of hypocrisy.



BURT WOLF: In New Orleans the element of secrecy is used to make fun of America’s image as an open society, one where everyone has an equal chance.

YOUNG MAN PARTICIPANT ON CAMERA: Last time I got thrown into jail but I made it this time. I made it the whole way.

BURT WOLF: Most of the time only the people who are already on the inside ever get to have real power.

JESSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: Royalty and Carnival is fascinating because at its origins, at its roots, at its inception, Carnival is very much about turnaround.  Turnaround being fair play.  Master becomes slave, slave becomes master.  In that sense the aristocrats become the commoners, the commoners become the aristocrats. Some of the famous Carnival monarchs, 1949, Louis Armstrong, King of Zulu, you find, at one point, and I don't remember the dates exactly, but the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the deposed king goes to Carnival in New Orleans and he and his wife, the Duchess, actually salute King Rex and King Comus, so that you have the king saluting the king in that sense, the aristocrat saluting those who were perhaps not actual aristocrats.

BURT WOLF: Men had always ruled over the public parades, but in New Orleans women, with the title of Queen began to rule over the private balls. During the early 1940s the Krewe of Venus was formed and women began to march openly in the parades. But men and women didn’t march together until the 1960s. 

Part of the ritual is to have king Rex die at the end of the festival. In Europe, he was buried in effigy. In America, where we like happy endings, the King waves his wand and Carnival is over. The ritual is also a reminder that we don’t take royalty seriously.


BURT WOLF: To say that the King Cake tradition was still alive would be an extraordinary understatement.  Each year well over one million of these cakes are sold, and they have become so popular that bakers produce them all year long and actually ship them all over the world.  This is Haydel’s Bakery in New Orleans, and it’s quite special.  In addition to the plastic baby doll in the cake, there is a porcelain collector’s doll.  And in one cake each week, there is a certificate that can be exchanged for a solid gold King Cake Baby.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: If you ever end up at a carnival party and your piece of cake doesn’t contain the token that makes you king or queen, don’t feel too bad.  Along with the right to become king or queen, you also get the responsibility to organize and pay for next week’s party.

BURT WOLF: A King Cake is a traditional symbol of the sweet life that is part of Carnival in New Orleans, but so is the Pecan Praline candy. 

Pastry Chef Kurt Ebert at The Grill Room in the Windsor Court Hotel demonstrates the traditional recipe.

KURT EBERT ON CAMERA: We are starting with about five ounces of butter.  The butter will have to be melted first before I put, add the cream and the sugar in.  This is a half a quart of cream, or two cups.  At this stage I can add my sugar to it, and I’ll be adding brown sugar first; it doesn’t matter, and this is one pound.  One pound of brown sugar, and we also add one pound of white sugar.


KURT EBERT ON CAMERA: I will be adding a little bit of vanilla beans to it.  If you don’t have any vanilla beans, a lot of people have this Mexican vanilla essence --

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Vanilla extract

KURT EBERT ON CAMERA: The extract and stuff like that.  Some people put vanilla beans in their ventilation system.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In the ventilation system?

KURT EBERT ON CAMERA: It makes the house smell really wonderful.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I’ll put ‘em in my socks and see what it does there.

KURT EBERT ON CAMERA: Oh, God.  And that is it; now all I have to do is wait for the cooking, because you do have to get the temperature right before you add your nuts to it.  I can actually try to test it. I’ll do this test. A nice plate, a white, straight plate, and you drop some on here.  So this cools down immediately, and you can look how it’s running.


KURT EBERT ON CAMERA: So you don’t have to use your finger, you don’t have a thermometer, so do the old-fashioned plate test.  And this is not done yet, it’s too...

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It’s too much moisture in there --

KURT EBERT ON CAMERA: It’s getting there, it’s getting there, you see?  See what it does?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ahh.  It’s beginning.

KURT EBERT ON CAMERA: Like it’s not supposed to be runny.  But I think I’m getting close.  See the bubbles, how different they are from a minute ago?  They’re more -- it’s almost like a volcano kind of thing.  It’s correct, it’s time to proceed.  It is approximately two pounds, and I’m just adding them in until I think it’s the right amount.  So it’s really important that you pre-toast them first.  Every nut is basically fat, oil.  So you’re toasting it to reduce the oil of the nut, and you enhance and bring out the flavor of every nut.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Interesting -- so when I toast a nut, I reduce the amount of oil, it vaporizes, and I get a concentrated flavor.

KURT EBERT ON CAMERA: That’s right, ‘cause the pecans will not really cook in this batter; they’ll just be coated in it.  So you pre-cook them.  Transferring it onto the cookie sheet, you can either use two spoons or one spoon.  They’re very shiny and almost translucent at this point.  Now, this is one method.  Some people are more comfortable using two spoons.  So you go in with one spoon, and you take the other one and you sort of turn it out like that.  Because you cannot touch it with your hands, it’s way too hot.

BURT WOLF: And how long do they sit?

KURT EBERT ON CAMERA: It’ll take about, I would think, half an hour, forty-five minutes, and they’ll be ready for feasting.


BURT WOLF: Americans love belonging to a group and a parade is an excellent way for a group to show itself off.  Accordingly, the number of parades that are staged each year in the United States is extraordinary. The parade that is part of Carnival in New Orleans has become a way for the city to show itself to the rest of the world. Television has given the event a vast audience which allowed the city to turn what had been a local event into a spectacle for others.

These days, there are “national” floats with distinctly commercial overtones. They are large and slick and no longer make the hard-hitting or mocking statements about life in New Orleans that were central to Carnival for over a hundred years. To a certain extent anytime we have a spectacle with a large audience we feel the need to sell them something. In 1969, the Krewe of Bacchus was founded by companies that were involved in tourism. Each year, Bacchus is led by a nationally known celebrity rather than a citizen of New Orleans. Its two-story-high float includes a dinosaur called “Bacchusaurus”. It looks like it escaped from Disneyland. It is charming and friendly and will not offend anyone with the possible exception of scholars searching for authentic examples of ancient Carnival activity.

Part of Carnival tradition is to shower the watchers with gifts. In ancient Rome there were fountains of wine, barrels of nuts and baskets of sweets. In New Orleans plastic necklaces and tin coins are flung from the floats. The begging crowd, with arms open, waits below. Some authorities believe that people at the top throwing money to people at the bottom is a reenactment of the dream of America—streets paved with gold, a capitalist society offering an infinite supply of whatever you need at the moment you need it. People walk through the streets proudly displaying the necklaces and coins they have caught. The American myth of success through accumulation of material things is celebrated and at the same time mocked.  It’s a perfect example of people making fun of their society. 

ARTHUR HARDY ON CAMERA: There really are no spectators at Mardi Gras.  We all participate in it at some level.  We don't sell tickets.  It by law and by tradition it is not corporately sponsored.  The shareholders are the citizens of New Orleans who, who present this gift to the world each year.  And that's one of the unique things about Mardi Gras is, I tell people it's almost as if you went to New York and to a Broadway play and you're standing in line to buy your ticket and the actors come off the stage and say "wait, let me buy your ticket.  It's on us.  And by the way, we're going to give you a free gift to take home afterward."  And we do that.  Our parades are crowd participation events because we throw favors to the crowd.  There's no other entertainment venue in the world where the people who put on the show pay for it and the audience gets a free ride.  If you can't enjoy that, there's something wrong. 


BURT WOLF: Like most traditions in the United States, Carnival in New Orleans is a mixture of things that have been brought here from different places. The primary elements came from French and Spanish culture. But as soon as they arrived African tradition was blended in.

ARTHUR HARDY ON CAMERA: The word gumbo is such a cliche.  But that's really what Mardi Gras is.  There's so many ethnic influences and they've melded together to the point that we don't even know what came from where.  But it is probably the most diversified event in the world.  And, and one of the things that I like the most about Mardi Gras is, is that spirit of togetherness.  You know when you're on the street celebrating, you don't know if the person next to you is a banker or a beggar.  It doesn't matter.  You know we are all equal at Mardi Gras.

BURT WOLF: An important aspect of Carnival in New Orleans is the role of the African-American community—they have their own krewes and their own king.  Known as the Zulus, during the early 1900s, they made a conscious effort to portray the grotesque aspects of white racist clichés.

JESSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: If you think of Carnival as being Saturnalia, masters become slaves, slaves become masters, already we've got black folks emulating their masters, and white folks emulating their selves, if you will. But then you add to it something like Zulu.  King Zulu, well, King Rex arrives by water, King Zulu arrives by water, but on a barge, okay.  Banana stalk for a scepter, a lard can as a crown originally.  So it's a complete burlesque, and in black face. A complete burlesque of the traditional Carnival king who is in turn a burlesque, in a way, of aristocracy.  So it's the sort of multi-layered, it's that onion again.  It's peeling that onion.  You get all of those layers.

And so Zulu is an African American marching organization, Carnival organization that parades and that has become one of the most popular parades of all.  They parade on Mardi Gras, which is prime time.  Their throws are the most collectable of all throws.  Others throw beads and the doubloons and everything else.  Zulus throw coconuts.  And, you know, you don't want to get one of those lobbed at your head, but you do want to get one of those lobbed at your head because they're the most prized Carnival throw you can have.

BURT WOLF: Mardi Gras has always been a place where ordinary people could show off their creativity. The Mardi Gras Indians are a perfect example of people using Carnival to demonstrate their amazing talents. The Mardi Gras Indians are groups from the black community who call themselves “tribes,” and wear costumes inspired by the dress of the Native American. 

JESSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: What we have in the United States is rather than dealing with the tribes of Africa, we have Indians.  We have our own range of Indian tribes, the New Orleans Indians, who parade ... they don't really parade, they have their sort of little neighborhood parades, they're sort of scatter-shot parades, throughout the city during Carnival.

I think that people chose Indians because one of the things that we're only beginning to discover nowadays is the communication that actually went on between enslaved Africans and native Americans.  They shared many values, in traditional systems, although they didn't same have the same religion, they understood some things about how you don't own the earth, and how you know, how the world works in other ways.  They shared a respect for medicinal herbs; they shared a kind of respect for ancestors; they shared or paralleled each other in many ways.

BURT WOLF: Larry Bannock is the Chief of the Golden Star Hunters.

LARRY BANNOCK ON CAMERA:    Basically I taught myself.  Over twenty-four years you just get better and better, you know.  Every year you learn something different.  There never was the Indian suit that was completed.  I mean, Mardi Gras morning, time is short, money is funny and everybody’s looking at you -- “Let’s go, let’s go!”  So you put it on.  But one of these suits, they’ve never been finished.  There’s always something else you could do to add on, you could add on.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You think there’s one message that the Indian sends to everybody when they see him?

LARRY BANNOCK ON CAMERA: Well all I can speak for is what the message I send.  When I do a patch, I do a patch because I want it to have a meaning and a purpose.  It’s like a spiritual thing.  It’s like this patch here.  When I do a patch I pay respect to the red man for what they did for us.  But then again, you look at the red man culture, the black man culture. When we were slaves, the red men were the first to accept us as men.  So this is just a way of paying respect to them. A lot of times people think Indians are just a bunch of guys putting on a costume, but this is a ritual or a culture that starts in September and goes all the way to Mardi Gras day.  A lot of people don’t know the heartaches and the pain and headaches that you go through to do this. I mean, it’s no fun, believe me.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Then why do you do it?

LARRY BANNOCK ON CAMERA: Because you love it.  Once you do it, and you really love it, you never want to stop.

BURT WOLF: Cities are man-made, they’re structured; they start with a planning grid. Cities need to be orderly or they fall apart. But a city’s structure and control can also be exhausting for the people who live in it — from time to time, they need an infusion of new life—a sense of freedom, and that infusion and sense of freedom must come from outside the community. For cities, throughout the United States, that’s what Carnival is all about. For Taste of Freedom, I’m Burt Wolf.