Now that the parades, parties and celebrations are done, and the beads of Mardi Gras 2016 have been silenced, I can share my one-of-a-kind experience with you!
A few weeks ago, Southeastern grocery chain, Winn-Dixie, invited me to a special behind-the-scenes Mardi Gras experience. I had never been to Mardi Gras before, or even down South, so I had no idea what I was getting into. I had heard people say “Everyone should go to Mardi Gras at least once,” and I now agree with them 100%!
While I had hoped for warmer temps that would take the winter chill out of this up North girl, Mardi Gras was a little earlier this year, and temps were not as warm as I had hoped. No matter the weather, Mardi Gras ALWAYS goes on, and people by the millions come out to celebrate, eat, cheer and party, especially the weekend before Fat Tuesday! Everything ends at midnight on Fat Tuesday, and the party shuts down as locals prepare for the start of Lent. Order is restored almost overnight by the city of New Orleans, and everyday life starts again.
While there, Winn-Dixie took me behind the scenes to see some of the traditions that make Louisiana special. I’m excited to share my visit to the New Orleans Fish House, Capitol City Produce, Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, parades and more!
I arrived on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday, and was treated to a local delicacy, Po Boy sandwiches. Most like the seafood version with fried shrimp, oysters or fish, but I’m allergic, so I had a roast beef – another popular option. Po Boys are like a submarine sandwich, but warm. The roast beef Po Boy was covered in gravy, and came with yummy deep fried fries, also covered in gravy! I had never had one, but I’m a fan now!
After a late lunch, my Winn-Dixie hosts got me checked in at my hotel, and let me get settled. Being it was also Super Bowl Sunday, there were plenty of festivities happening in downtown New Orleans, so we headed out to catch some parades, walk the historic Bourbon Street and to experience my first Mardi Gras adventure.
Bourbon Street is in the heart of the French Quarter, and during Mardi Gras, people fill the street wandering in and out of parties, restaurants and bars, while celebrating and trying to catch beads from people on the balconies above. I found the shops and other unique hotels and bars festive and charming, and everyone was so friendly! The city was full of interesting people, and true to Mardi Gras form, entertainment of all sorts. I went to my first parade, the Krewe of Bacchus. I have been to a lot of parades, but nothing like this! The floats are huge and multi-tiered and night parade floats light up the streets. The crowds are also large, and many people come very early, set up camp and wait many hours to get a good spot to catch beads and other specialty items, called “throws” that are tossed from floats. I racked up quite a haul from this parade, including some rare throws with Bacchus medallions on them. Mardi Gras parades can last hours, and also include many high school marching bands from schools all across Louisiana. As my first day at Mardi Gras came to a close, I snapped this picture of a building. I have no idea it’s history, but its architecture and beauty simply amazed me. I would highly recommend reading more on the history of New Orleans, and of Mardi Gras, there is so much I simply can’t share it all!
Monday we were up bright and early for a day of behind the scenes tours to learn how Winn-Dixie and local businesses partner to honor Louisiana traditions. First up was New Orleans Fish House, a local supplier of fresh fish and seafood to Winn-Dixie. From the Gulf, to the Fish House, to the store, it’s all fresh, and it’s all local! The Fish House has a unique way of cleaning and processing that keeps everything as fresh as possible when it was caught. Everything is checked for quality, and delivered fresh to local Winn-Dixie stores. There are many specialty fish and seafood items that are part of traditional celebrations, including Mardi Gras, and of course, Lent. Crawfish boils are among the most popular. Shrimp is consumed in mass by locals – fried, boiled, grilled, especially this time of year. The owner, William B. Borges, Jr. runs the company that has been family owned since it opened in 1990, and they take great pride in providing only the freshest fish possible to stores, restaurants and families. Winn-Dixie is especially proud to offer the Fish House products because of their commitment to the local community and fishing industry. Their pride showed in how they talked about their products too. It was yet another friendly group of people too!
Next up was Capitol City Produce (CCP), located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, another local Winn-Dixie partner. CCP has been family-owned for almost 70 years! They provide fresh produce to local restaurants, casinos, food service companies, and retail stores like Winn-Dixie. They are one of the only local SQF Level 2 certified companies for food safety and quality standards. They also acquired their own trucking and shipping company. This allowing them to transport produce from their hand picked farms, and deliver it right to their facility, and then on to their vendors and retailers in the fastest, safest and most efficient way possible. After hearing their process, I suggested they sum it up in three words – “Ground to Grocer!” Their commitment to their products and to their community impressed me greatly – especially as a mom who wants to give my kids the freshest and safest fruits and veggies. They’ll work with local schools, food banks and other community partners to provide education and resources. CPC is a local company that truly loves its community. While there, they let us sample a few of their awesome products that are available at Winn-Dixie stores! My favorite was the Louisiana Strawberries!! Not too sweet, not too tart, absolutely PERFECT! They even let me take a pack with me – it didn’t last very long.
Our next stop was the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, to do some volunteering! This was one of my favorite stops too! Our job was packing backpacks with snacks for the BackPack Program. The BackPack Program was created to help kids in low-income families by providing a backpack filled with easy meals and snacks that kids take home each day, on weekends and during holiday breaks. They contain things like fruit bars, peanut butter, crackers, cereal, juice boxes, and other easy snacks. This ensures that these kids have at least basic food items and that they don’t go hungry. Many kids only get the meal they are served through the school lunch program, and would go hungry at night. Winn-Dixie also presented a check for $30,000 as a grant to the food bank to help support the BackPack Program, which is their way of giving back to the community, and ensuring the program continues. After packing bags, and presenting the check, I got to sign their volunteer wall. I know programs like this exist in communities everywhere, and I help at the one in my community too! I was honored to volunteer. Giving back, to any community, feels GREAT! You can check with your local food bank if you want to volunteer.
Our last stop of the day was a visit to the newly remodeled Winn-Dixie store in Baton Rouge. During this stop, we had a chance to see the fresh and local seafood and produce in the store – and even sample some. The store offered spicy boiled crawfish and hot shrimp and we enjoyed a lunch of local dishes – from seafood, to BBQ! After lunch, I learned how to make a special Mardi Gras treat – King Cake! Because I’m not real handy when it comes to baking, the bakery team had their work cut out! If you’ve never tasted King Cake, it’s like eating a cinnamon roll, only better! It’s a large ring of mouth watering cinnamon bread-like cake, filled with your choice of filling – strawberry, cream cheese, blueberry and many others – then topped with sweet icing and colorful Mardi Gras colored sugar sprinkles! I was not so talented at the filling part, but I nailed the icing and sugar sprinkles! Then we got to sample my cake, which was so sweet, it could have induced a sugar coma!
We also got a quick tour of the store, where I zoned in on Zapps Chips, a local favorite. I had tasted some the day before and fallen in love. They come in several flavors, and I had to bring some home!
That concluded our visits for the day, but the night was young, and we headed to the Krewe of Orpheus parade with Harry Connick Jr.!! (Yes, he is even cuter in person!!) For this parade, we got up very close, and the crowds were very family-friendly on St. Charles Avenue. Orpheus featured more amazingly lit floats, some awesome marching bands and of course, lots of people-watching entertainment. I caught several very cool items, and a lot more beads. One cool feature of this one was the fire torch carriers. They carried real fire, and walked in front of the bands. This tradition dates all the way back to when the parades first started, and there were no street lights. Torch carriers would carry fire torches and march with the floats and bands to provide light. It shows just how long this tradition has been a part of New Orleans. This parade ended a bit earlier than the night before, and I was happy to head back and get some sleep!
As Fat Tuesday dawned, my excitement grew – that was the day I would get to ride in the Krewe of Argus parade with the Winn-Dixie team! Winn-Dixie was the proud sponsor of the Krewe of Argus parade breakfast, feeding the entire krewe of the parade. As we got ready for the parade, and put on our festive costumes (no laughing!) I learned a few things. With this parade, it’s tradition that you cannot take off your mask while on the parade route. Our parade route was very long, and over a million people attended it! It was fun to be on the other side of the cheering crowds, but it confused me to hear them say “Throw me something Mister”, which I learned was just part of the tradition, and did not mean I looked like a mister… Throwing beads is harder than catching them, and aim is everything! I loved getting to throw beads and other items to eagerly waiting kids along the route. For a weekday parade, the crowds were huge, most likely because Fat Tuesday is a holiday in New Orleans, and the city pretty much shuts down for the last day of celebrations. After more than four hours on a float, and the last beads were thrown, my wonderful Mardi Gras experience was coming to an end.
Looking back on Mardi Gras, I am honored to have experienced it with the Winn-Dixie team, and to have witnessed their commitment to their local community, customers and local companies. Winn-Dixie is definitely a company that cares about others, and is committed to serving a diverse range of groups and organizations. The people I met were warm and caring, and some of the friendliest people I have ever met! My stay in Louisiana, while short, was packed with adventures, learning and giving back. Who could ask for more?
Post written by Jen. She is a wife, mom, and helps run our facebook page.