Mardi Gras in Tucson: All Beads, No B**bs

Mardi_GrasThe celebrated history of Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday” translated from French can trace its roots all the way back to the 17th century. The Roman Catholic Church season of Lent, replete with fasting and sacrifice begins on Ash Wednesday and Mardi Gras was to be one final fling before the 40-day abdication.

“By the 1730s, much of our modern-day traditions had started: People wore masks in processions, with slaves carrying flambeaux, or torches,” says Karen Leatham, museum historian for the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans. “In 1875, Fat Tuesday became an official holiday in Louisiana.”

Parades for Mardi Gras first began in New Orleans in 1857 by “Krewes,” organizations that would build floats and organize balls. The latest count on New Orleans krewes has topped over 50 major parades in the metro New Orleans area. The tradition for tossing beads or “throws” from the floats soon became synonymous with the parades and they became the most sought-after trinket of the day.

Enter capitalism and hedonism.

Female attendants of early Mardi Gras parades proved that there was no limits to garnering the perfect Mardi Gras accessory—beads. The flashier, the gaudier, the bigger, the better.

The traditional colors of purple, green and gold were chosen by the Krewe of Rex in 1872 to honor a visiting Russian grand duke, whose house colors were purple, green and gold, according to the website Mardi Gras New Orleans. Later, the Rex krewe assigned meanings to each color. Purple stands for justice, green for faith and gold for power.

ParishIn Tucson, the Mardi Gras celebration is a little bit more tame. To get in the spirit of the celebration, I attended Southern Arizona’s largest celebration of Fat Tuesday revelers at The Parish to see how Tucson measured up to the original. I have been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but in all honesty, I hardly remember too much, as it was 20 years ago.

The festival began at 5 p.m. and promised an authentic crawfish boil, four different live bands, hurricanes, and other Cajun specialties including gumbo, jambalaya, hush puppies and collard greens.

Upon my arrival at 6 p.m., I noticed a huge setup in the parking lot with a considerable line for revelers waiting to partake in the celebration. I made my way to the bar to meet with Steve Dunn, co-owner of the “deep southern” eatery and cocktail bar.

As you might imagine, Dunn was quite busy when I arrived and so I took in the scenery, the music, the beer and the food. I began with the Abita Amber Lager, the preferred beer of Mardi Gras celebrations as it pairs remarkably well with crawfish and Cajun food in general.

I spoke with bartender, Jon Tokan while waiting to speak with Dunn and he was a wealth of great information as he has been with The Parish from the beginning. “We offer many hand-crafted cocktails and infusions that you won’t find anywhere else,” Tokan said. “I’m not completely certain, but I also believe that we are the largest supplier of Abita beer in Arizona.”

The “Liquid Courage” menu showed many examples of Tokan’s inspirations, but he stated that the most popular was the Dutch Well Water, a combination of house-infused cucumber gin, fresh lime juice, peach bitters and lavender water—sounds amazing. Other favorites including specialty infusions were the Parishioner and La Verdad using basil vodka and cucumber tequila, respectively.

CrawfishTokan mentioned that the crawfish were flown in fresh from New Orleans overnight, so I ventured out to get my serving of the mud bugs served with potatoes and corn on the cob. I was served a hefty dish of the crustaceans and went to work pinching the tails and sucking the heads of the Cajun specialty. I made quick work of the “little lobsters” and some were even large enough to have viable meat in the claws, so that was a bonus. The crawfish were great, incredibly seasoned but the potatoes and corn were mushy, but I still finished the entire dish and then ordered up a Mardi Gras favorite cocktail, the Hurricane.

I wasn’t paying attention to how the drink was made, but the original recipe calls for light and dark rum, orange and passion fruit juice, grenadine and garnished with a cherry and an orange slice. The drink packed a punch but had enough sweetness to mask the high alcohol content.

After my tour of Cajun food and drinks, I was finally able to catch the eye of Dunn who took some time out to speak me about his restaurant.

Dunn, along with two other owners, Bryce Zeagler and Travis Peters took ownership of the location which was a sports bar at the time in August of 2011 and transformed it to The Parish in October. Zeagler is the former owner of The French Quarter that was on Grant Rd. and Country Club, which was coincidentally one of the first places that my wife and I visited on Mardi Gras six years ago.

Dunn was the General Manager and Peters was the Executive Chef of the Cup Café at the historic Hotel Congress, the two along with Ziegler had a desire to bring tastes of Texas and the deep south to Tucsonans. Dunn describes the everyday menu not so much as Cajun, but as southern fusion gastropub fare.

They have a huge smoker out back that produces an unique smoke to dishes such as their sweet tea-brined double bone-in pork chop, beer braised adobo rubbed barbeque pork, salmon, and tomatoes for an incredible pasta sauce.

Dixie“All three of us have manged restaurants before,” Dunn said. “We couldn’t wait to bring our own brand of southern food along with Jon’s specialty infused cocktails to the restaurant scene. The reception from the Tucson market has been phenomenal and people are realizing that we are more than just a Mardi Gras destination.” Dunn backed up his claim by saying that Valentine’s Day was just as busy, if not busier than Fat Tuesday. “We had a steady stream of two-tops throughout the evening and couples were purchasing big-ticket items without batting an eye.”

After speaking with Dunn, I needed another beer, this time I went back to Abita and had their Hop Gator. According to their website,  The HopGator is a dry hopped Helles Doppelbock. It is a strong lager that is brewed with pilsner malt and a small amount of caramel malt. It is then aged for 8 weeks so the strong sweet flavors from the malt will blend with the spicy and fruity flavors from the hops. I truly enjoyed this beer with its sweet malty flavor and strong hop aroma.

As the night grew on, I noticed an increasing number of younger patrons begin to file in, all wearing the accessory du jour—strands of colorful beads. The live music played on, the drinks were flowing across the bar top at a rapid pace and the crowd of 20 and 30-somethings became more lubricated.

There was, however, no clamoring for beads and nary a shirt or top was raised in an attempt to garner the plastic trinkets that would most likely end up in the trash when they got home.

You stay classy, Tucson.

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