Posted by: Stefan Anderson | March 10, 2011

Mardi Gras in the Northwoods

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Today’s blog post is by guest blogger Kathleen Banton. Kathleen is a native of New Orleans and the charming wife of Conserve School’s Chief Financial Officer Felix Banton. This week she shared a bit of herself with us by assisting our Sodexo dining services staff in creating a Mardi Gras feast for lunch on Fat Tuesday. As you can see in the pictures many students and staff dressed for the occasion.


Most non-native New Orleanians, when thinking of Mardi Gras, conjure decadent images of “Guys and Girls Gone Wild,” a microscopic observation of a single “Party-cle” of the Fat Tuesday atom.  To us locals, the celebratory element is ever present, but the focus is, and always will be, on family, floats, food, friends, and of course, the music and the beads!  These carnival memories are encapsulated and carried within satin harlequin bags tightly tied around our costumed waists, protected and forever “by our sides.”  New Orleans is predominantly a Roman Catholic city and, surprisingly to some, Mardi Gras season is a religious ride beginning on January 6, the Kings’ Day and the Gifts of the Magi.  This festive itinerary includes a multitude of stops in ornate auditorium halls in the presence of “wannabe” kings, queens, jesters, in bargeboard shotgun doubles filled with covered tables of multi-colored glass beads, flying feathers, thin thread surrounded by tired men with magnified eyes, and in warehouse dens of rainbow painted, sparkling papier mache decorated monster trucks shouting out stories and fables of the past and present, and sometimes the future, with the final destination or its destiny, Mardi Gras Day, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. 

My “Mardi Gras in the Northwoods” begins with a phone call from my husband informing me that Judy Wiita from Sodexo Dining Services is planning a Mardi Gras luncheon for the students and is wondering if I would like to help. Within several days and a couple of planning sessions, I realize that Judy has the soul of a true New Orleans girl.  By Monday afternoon, she has memorized the correct pronunciation of “Laissez bon temps rouler!”  Now, I just need to teach her the art of “Throw me sumptin, mistah!”  Everyone in New Orleans cooks; so, Judy Wiita, Jenny Riihimaki, and Colleen Pietenpol definitely meet the food criteria.  No more “lunch ladies;” they are food artists.  The Creole Holy Trinity of celery, onions and green peppers are chopped on Monday morning in preparation for the menu of the day:  Shrimp and Andouille Gumbo ( Southwest Louisiana style), Vegetarian Jambalaya, Smothered Green Beans (my sister Denise’s recipe), Muffaletta sandwiches (Judy’s homemade bread and Olive Salad Dressing) with Gambino’s (the real deal) King Cakes from New Orleans.

With “Mardi Gras Mambo” playing in the background, Monday soon becomes Tuesday.  Judy and Jenny break out the purple, gold and green decorations. Bearing beads on her arm, Judy steers the day like a Hermes tractor driver, avoiding the weighted, low hanging branches of the elderly, gray long-haired oak trees standing in procession on the St. Charles Avenue parade route. Students and staff in costumes fill the dining room with their laughter and their colorful garb.  Watching and listening to the creatively dressed up and dressed down young women and men seated around the tables infuses my memory bag of Mardi Gras senses…embroidered sequined jackets, metallic fabric jumpsuits, striped stockings, tuxedoes, Jackie Kennedy hats, bowler caps, stars and stripes, and more. King cakes are served, plastic babies are found, kings and queens are anointed and gifted.  With the final notes and cadence of the Mardi Gras beat, the Conserve School family… food, friends, music and beads… the main ingredients….all march out, dancing and second lining to the rhythmic bobbing of the purple, green, and gold striped umbrella. 

Now, all we need is a float…….maybe next year…..remember, all you need is a single toy wagon!












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