Derby does not equal Mardi Gras

When I tell locals that one of the reasons I love Louisville so much is that it reminds me of New Orleans, they don’t believe me at first. So I’m well practiced at ticking off the similarities between the two cities: shotgun houses, neighborhood mentality, great food, exciting local music, artsy people, boozy traditions, bars that stay open ‘til the wee hours.

Once I get on a roll – muggy summers, wonky politics, outdoor music festivals – inevitably, the native Louisvillian will want to chime in.

“And the Kentucky Derby is our Mardi Gras!”

(Cue: Sound effect of needle being dragged across an LP.)

OK kids, let’s not get carried away. The Derby is not our Mardi Gras. No event in the world is anyone’s Mardi Gras. And yes, that includes other celebrations of Mardi Gras/Carnival/what-have-you, worldwide.

And I know what y’all mean when you say the Derby is like Mardi Gras – you’re thinking infield debauchery. You’re thinking booze and boobs and Hunter S. Thompson style bull hockey.

But that’s the MTV Spring Break Mardi Gras. That’s the Bourbon Street, Girls Gone Wild, Midwestern-middle-aged tourist version (yes, people, New Orleanians stereotype you right back). And just as you don’t want to think that the infield encapsulates the spirit of your beloved civic tradition, New Orleanians are mad as hell that Mardi Gras has become synonymous with beads and the drunk tank.

Mardi Gras is not a one-day binge. Mardi Gras is a part-time job that every New Orleanian holds down from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. In 2012, there were 61 parades in the New Orleans metro area in the month of February alone, 32 of which were held in the city proper. It’s not unusual for city-dwellers to hit the vast majority of these parades. Mardi Gras is a celebration of family and friends and culture and community. Chris Rose, a New Orleans journalist and author, once said that the only breasts he saw at Mardi Gras parades were breastfeeding a baby.

Maybe good old Hunter S. could’ve stayed drunk and randy for the better part of two months. But I’d rather believe he would have done it up like a local.

“Mardi Gras is the love of life,” wrote Chris Rose in “1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina.” “It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.”

Sounds pretty decadent to me.


–Melissa Chipman

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