I ushered in Mardi Gras Week with red beans and rice, jambalaya, King Cake and a big bowl of gumbo at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Gulf Breeze, Florida. For only $10, I enjoyed a plate filled with delicious food and a bowl of some of the best gumbo I’ve ever eaten. I wore my Mardi Gras beads and carried my gumbo purse, just to get into the spirit.
The volunteer gumbo cook, Bernice Bellard, a transplant from Lafayette, Louisiana, was ladling out her chicken and sausage gumbo at the end on the buffet line. She wore a quirky apron and a big smile, even though she’d been cooking all day in the church kitchen. She insisted on cooking there to ensure her special Cajun gumbo would be served hot and to her satisfaction. Locals know her as Angie Batten’s mom. Bernice’s gumbo reminded me of my grandmother’s – the chicken was perfectly moist, not stringy and the taste sublime.
Three miles across the bay from Gulf Breeze, sits Pensacola which boasts a much longer history of Mardi Gras, tracing back to 1874 when the Knights of Priscus organized. Compared to neighboring Mobile, which held its first Mardi Gras celebration in 1703, Pensacola is a latecomer to the party. New Orleans’ first krewe, the mystic Krewe of Comus, observed Mardi Gras with a parade in 1875, one year after organizing. Now even smaller towns along the coast like Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Fairhope, Alabama, and Pensacola Beach host parades. But very small towns like Gulf Breeze focus on the food.
So it’s beads, parades and food for the next few days for me. On the Monday before Mardi Gras
(Lundi Gras), there’s free red beans and rice on Pensacola Beach, compliments of the Krewe of Wrecks. I’ll miss it, though, because I’ll be at an art event in nearby Crestview—but at least it has a Mardi Gras theme.
On Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, we’ll be dining at St. Francis Assisi Episcopal Church for another New Orleans’ spread. I’m beginning to long for old-fashioned Shrove Tuesday celebrations like the ones at Christ Episcopal Church in Tyler, Texas, where we celebrated with a big pancake dinner . . . no andouille, Tabasco or Louisiana Hot Sauce. . . just plain ol’ pancakes with syrup.