It was Mardi Gras morning 2012, and my Hubig’s Pie was missing. On Lundi Gras (AKA “Fat Monday,” which has evolved to include traditions of its own), I had hidden it away – apple I believe, but I can’t quite recall – to serve as my breakfast before a full day of parading, revelry and maybe a little debauchery. For those not in the know, a Hubig’s is a deep-fried hand pie, with flavors like apple, lemon, peach and chocolate. They were sold by the Simon Hubig Pie Company, founded in Fort Worth in 1922 by an immigrant from the Basque region of Spain. The company then went on to open bakeries in several cities in the southeast, including New Orleans. Simon’s pies, with their iconic mascot Savory Simon, became beloved by generations of New Orleanians.
I never got the chance to eat that pie. Someone in my household (no names) beat me to it in an act of Mardi Gras betrayal right up there with putting the baby back in the king cake. I should have walked across the street to the Breaux Mart and bought another. I thought I’d get one later at the corner store, maybe. But I didn’t, and a few months later, a massive grease fire had consumed Hubig’s only remaining bakery – on Dauphine Street in New Orleans – and my dreams of a Hubig’s Pie with them. Ten years later, despite efforts to reopen, the pie factory remains shuttered.
It’s been two years since our last Mardi Gras, as the official 2021 Carnival season in New Orleans was canceled. Its absence tore a huge hole in the fabric of the city. To outsiders, Mardi Gras is merely a raucous and somewhat lewd street party. The images of nubile young women flashing some skin for beads in a Bacchanalian fever dream. And that certainly does exist on Bourbon Street, where tourists go to forget who they are and where they came from. But for locals, Mardi Gras is a party we throw for ourselves. It is also far more family oriented than most people think. It’s where our creativity and cleverness are on display for the whole world to see, but for us to enjoy. We are the Lords of Misrule, and the social order is turned on its head, if only for a brief time.
Mardi Gras, like my Hubig’s Pie dream, is fleeting. It is unpredictable, encompassing the full range of emotions, like the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy commonly associated with it. The highs and lows of the season, its farewell to flesh motif, and the food and cultural traditions that stretch back generations, are the focal point of the New Orleans calendar year.
No two Carnival seasons are ever alike, but they all share a common thread. It might be reuniting with family and friends at a favorite spot on the parade route. Or a party or ball you attend every year. Or if you are part of a Krewe, it’s the ride you take down St. Charles Avenue past the outstretched hands of locals and tourists alike, each vying for a trinket that turns from worthless to precious through the transubstantiation of Mardi Gras. It’s the corner of Orleans and Claiborne, where generations of Black families have gathered to watch the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade toss coconuts to the crowd as boils and barbecues perfume the air.
We share our food and drinks in New Orleans, especially at Carnival time. It is not uncommon for a stranger to hand you a beer or a piece of fried chicken or a slice of king cake as you wander the parade route. We are, after all, one of the last communal cities in America. And during Mardi Gras it doesn’t even feel like America. Honestly that is true most of the year. Long, newspaper-covered tables teeming with crawfish carry us from Carnival through Festival Season. There is nothing like standing around eating the little crustaceans and wondering if the Saints will make the playoffs this year. Where Popeyes might be fast food elsewhere, it originated here with our showman/entrepreneur Al Copeland and is inextricable from our celebrations. The orange and white grease-stained boxes are ubiquitous, piled high with hot, spicy, crispy fried chicken that tastes better in New Orleans than anywhere else. It’s worth the “20 minutes for spicy, baby.”
Mardi Gras, like my Hubig’s Pie dream, is fleeting. It is unpredictable, encompassing the full range of emotions, like the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy commonly associated with it.
And while Popeyes may be the standard, McKenzie’s Chicken in a box, Chubbie’s Fried Chicken and McHardy’s Chicken and Fixin’ are all popular local options as well. Sure you’ll find red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo, smoked and hot sausage po’ boys and other culinary delights at Mardi Gras celebrations, but it’s hard to argue against fried chicken as the ultimate parade food. You can eat it with one hand, standing up, while drinking a beer – that’s the gold standard.
Mardi Gras Day starts early. By 5am we’re either having a strong cup of chicory coffee or a beer, depending on how the night before went, and always a piece of king cake. If I’m lucky, it will be from Hi-Do or Dong Phuong, two of the city’s superlative Vietnamese bakeries. By 5:30am we’re usually in the Tremé, the oldest Black neighborhood in the country, to see the Northside Skull and Bones Gang take to the streets and wake up the neighborhood, knocking on doors and reminding people, with their chants and songs, to live virtuously in this life, because the next time you see them will be the afterlife.This is the last feast before the austerity and temperance of Lent, and we don’t want to miss a single minute of it.
From there, the day can go anywhere. It might go Uptown to the St. Charles Parade route and the majesty and tradition of the Rex, the King of Carnival, where people line the streets scarfing down fried chicken and Bloody Mary’s; or under the Claiborne Bridge where the Black Masking Indians reveal their new suits and meet each other to see who is the prettiest, and Black families cook elaborate spreads of ribs, jambalaya, chicken, baked macaroni and boiled seafood. Or it might be brandy milk punch and grits and grillades at a private residence before heading into the French Quarter for the St. Anne parade, a beautifully costumed walking parade which culminates on the levee of the Mississippi River with a blessing for those who have passed on, and the scattering of ashes.
Life and death are deeply intertwined here. It informs Mardi Gras, and more broadly, New Orleans, where we live half the year with the existential threat of hurricanes. We celebrate so hard because we know what it’s like to lose it all. Just like the Hubig’s Pie factory, it can all go up in smoke so quickly. But we’ll save the ashes for Wednesday, because on Tuesday, we live.
Published on February 27, 2022