By Joseph Neese - email
MOBILE, AL (RNN) - When people think about Mardi Gras, the first thing that comes to mind is New Orleans. But what many don't realize is that Mardi Gras was actually first celebrated in a nearby port city in Alabama, which still serves up a pretty fun carnival of its own.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people flock to Mobile, AL's downtown district to experience the one-and-only original Mardi Gras.
"A lot of people remember the history," said Kesshia Peyton, director of marketing and communications for the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In 1703, Mardi Gras was celebrated for the first time in the new world. It was brought to Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff, the first settlement of Mobile, by a group of French explorers.
In 1830, the first masked parading society, Cowbellian de Rakin Society, was formed on New Year's Eve. Peyton said the celebrants took to the streets with items such as rakes, hoes and cowbells.
Mardi Gras was canceled during the Civil War, but in an effort to revive the city's spirit, one man introduced Mardi Gras as we know it today.
"He's credited with bringing Mardi Gras back," Peyton said of Joe Cain.
This year, 37 parades will ride through the street's of Mobile's historic downtown.
The MoonPie has a long tradition outside of Mardi Gras
Although founded in 1902, the Chattanooga Bakery first began producing the MoonPie in 1917.
According to Tory Johnston, vice president of marketing for the bakery, the sweet was born when one salesman sought to better serve his customers.
Earl Mitchell visited a store that served mostly coal miners in the Appalachia area of Kentucky.
The miners didn't get to resurface for lunch, so they needed something that would fill them up. They said the combination of graham, chocolate and marshmallow would do the trick.
The legend is that the moon was rising when Mitchell asked how big the new treat should be. A miner held up his hand around the moon, which he thought would be the perfect size. And the rest is history.
Today, the Chattanooga bakery makes 1 million MoonPies per day.
"The MoonPie is an American icon kind of brand," Johnston said.
The MoonPie now comes in two varieties. The regular variety comes in chocolate, vanilla and banana flavors. It also has seasonal flavors: lemon, orange and strawberry.
There is also a MoonPie crunch, which Johnston said does well at Mardi Gras and has a crunchier cookie and a creamy filling. It comes in peanut butter and mint flavors.
The MoonPie is distributed nationally. So, if you can't make it to Mardi Gras this year, you can pick up a MoonPie at a retailer like Wal-Mart, Crackerbarrel or 7/11.
During Mardi Gras parades, intricately decorated floats packed with masked, costumed men and women line the streets of downtown Mobile. They are accompanied by marching bands and live music, in addition to horseback riders and policeman.
While the eye-popping details are enough to satisfy onlookers, a major draw is the free loot thrown to the crowds by the paraders. Items include candy, stuffed animals, cups, commemorative coins, roses and arguably the most infamous, beads.
"People develop these weird, unique bead-catching contraptions," Peyton said of parade attendees' love of beads. "And they really get into it."
Peyton said she once saw a basketball goal stuck to a broom used to scoop up the enticing jewelry.
In New Orleans, women are known to flash riders to obtain beads. That's something you're unlikely to see in Mobile.
"One of the things that stands out from New Orleans is that we are a family-friendly event," she said.
Soft on the face
Beads aside, the true treasure of Mobile's Mardi Gras is the original MoonPie.
"The city consumes more than four million MoonPies a year," Peyton said. "We've adopted this marshmallow treat as our emblem."
That wasn't always the case, however.
"Crackerjacks were what they threw for a long time," said Tory Johnston, vice president of marketing for the Chattanooga Bakery, which makes the MoonPie.
But the crackerjack had a downside. As they come in a box, they aren't soft to the touch, leaving parade attendees with wounds if they hit them in the face. So, it came time to search for a new treat.
"They were looking for something Southern, iconic, kind of soft, and the MoonPie came about as the preferred throw," Johnston said.
The MoonPie has become such an integral part of Mobile that a giant LED version is now dropped in the city at the stroke of midnight to commemorate the start of the new year.
"They're definitely meaningful and important to us," Johnston said of his company's relationship with Mobile.
"Mardi Gras is a big money-maker for the city of Mobile," Peyton said.
But, as Peyton notes, it's not just the city that benefits - it's a huge mass of people.
More than 12,811 jobs are linked to Mardi Gras in Mobile and in Baldwin County, AL.
"It's a big event, because everyone profits," Peyton said.
Businesses make floats and costumes for float riders. Crowds eager to catch their favorite flavor MoonPie heavily traffic downtown hotels, restaurants and museums. Post-parade balls sell dresses and rent tuxes, fill up hair and nail salons, and book limousines. The list goes on.
On average, $227 million is spent on the annual festival.
Mardi Gras culminates every year on Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins.
That gives many people one last chance to indulge before it's time to give up sweets for 40 days.
"People come and line the streets before the sun even comes out," Peyton said. "You have to see it to believe it."
This year you can see it all in Mobile March 8.
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