It’s that time of year – Mardi Gras season is in full swing! From cheap trinkets and stuffed animals to spending all day on the neutral ground, locals and tourists alike look forward to Carnival. For me, it wouldn’t be Mardi Gras without Popeye’s chicken, castle burgers from Tastee Donuts, and NOLA Blonde for sustenance. We all have our old faithfuls, those items that accompany us year after year, Carnival after Carnival, long after we’ve said we’re going to retire them (most of the time, this is an ice chest or a ladder). Here, I list some books that I feel are essential to accompany Carnival, as lively and vibrant as the city they represent.
The French Quarter Drinking Companion (Allison Alsup, Richard Read, Elizabeth Pearce): More than just a guidebook, this nifty little tome uncovers the colors of French Quarter bars through hilarious anecdotes. From fancy bars like the Carousel Bar to classic bars like Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop to sordid, dark hangouts that I’d rather not mention, the “Tipplers” cover them all – and leave us with a great list of places to hang out during Carnival season. Stuff this book into your snack bag to have it handy when you’re walking around looking for a cool place to get a drink.
New Orleans Celebrations (Kit Wohl): This fabulous cookbook from Kit Wohl offers more than 50 festive recipes from famous New Orleans restaurants, including Ralph’s on the Park, Muriel’s, Antoine’s, La Petite Grocery, Dooky Chase’s, Cochon, Toups’ Meatery, and Commander’s Palace, among others. Accompanied by gorgeous photographs and colorful musings, this book is appetizing to the eye as well as the taste buds. Looking for that perfect neutral ground fare? Try Chef Justin Devillier’s Louisiana Blue Crab Beignets (La Petite Grocery) followed by Chef Tariq Hanna’s King Cake (Sucre’). YUM!
Eat Dat New Orleans: A Guide to the Unique Food Culture of the Crescent City (Michael Murphy): What The French Quarter Drinking Companion does for bars, Eat Dat does for food, highlighting around 250 eating spots, from famous restaurants to food trucks and snoball stands. Perhaps the most helpful thing about this book is the list of appendices, which shows restaurants by cuisine, food festivals, and a “best of” list from the city’s most popular food writers and media personalities, including Poppy Tooker, Ian McNulty, and Sara Roahen. If you don’t want to bring your own food out to the parade route, make sure you have this book with you to choose the best spot closest to where you’ll be standing.
New Orleans Beer: A Hoppy History of Big Easy Brewing (Jeremy Labadie & Argyle Wolf-Knapp): The craft brewing revolution has caught hold in New Orleans! This is the first comprehensive history of brewing in the Big Easy – a history that spans 287 years. This book also includes an “Ale and Beer 101,” a greater New Orleans beer guide, and a guide to touring New Orleans’s existing breweries. Labadie and Wolf-Knapp also offer recipes and an explanation of brewing terminology for all you home brewers out there. If you want to drink some REAL New Orleans beer out on the parade route (or even make some of your own to bring), this book is just the thing to quench your thirst.
New Orleans Best Ethnic Restaurants (Ann Benoit): New Orleans is known as a melting pot, a city that blends cultures and blurs lines. This book highlights that culture through showcasing the best ethnic cuisine New Orleans has to offer. You can truly taste the world here – from Germany to Mexico to Lebanon – and Benoit takes you on a journey through photographs, summaries, and recipes that will ignite your taste buds. Want to get the true diverse New Orleans experience? Pick up this book and check out one of the eateries that adds ethnic spice to the city.
The Gravy: In the Kitchen with New Orleans Musicians (Elsa Hahne): In this eye-popping cookbook, Elsa Hahne, the food editor for New Orleans’s Offbeat Magazine brings you on a journey to visit 44 local musicians and learn about the deep connection between music and food that makes this city so unique. Almost every musical genre is represented, from jazz and blues to zydeco and bounce to brass, electronica, and funk. Local musician Dr. John introduces the book with his recipe for fried frog legs and his penchant for eating raw squirrel brains. This is the perfect book to have on your coffee table when you have friends over during Carnival season, with great recipes and fodder for conversation.
A Love Letter to New Orleans (Irvin Mayfield): This book/CD combination from Grammy award-winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield chronicles his love affair with New Orleans jazz music. The CD is one of my personal favorites, including rowdy recording sessions and late night introspection. The book boasts beautiful photographs that pair perfectly with the songs and reflections from Mayfield on why New Orleans matters so much to him. With collaborations and jam sessions with Wynton and Ellis Marsalis, the late and great Herman Leonard, and the Mardi Gras Indians, and finishing with the Mardi Gras Second Line, this album is perfect to play on repeat while waiting for the day’s parades to roll by.
Up From the Cradle of Jazz (Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose, Tad Jones): Aiming to be the definitive story of New Orleans contemporary music, this book allows you to rediscover New Orleans greats such as legendary piano players Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, James Booker, and Dr. John; singers Irma Thomas, Little Richard, and Aaron Neville; and composers Wynton and Bradford Marsalis, The Meters, and The Neville Brothers. Complete with a bibliography and discography, this comprehensive history of New Orleans music since World War II will get you out of that collapsible chair and onto your feet.
Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide (Arthur Hardy): If you’re a New Orleans local, I need not say more than the title of this book, and you know why it’s essential for Carnival season. For those who are tourists, for about $5, this essential magazine gives you everything you need to know about Mardi Gras, including parade routes, dates, and times, the history of Mardi Gras, and the answers to the 25 most frequently asked questions about Carnival. Arthur Hardy is New Orleans’s Mardi Gras expert, and there’s a reason his guide has been around since 1977. Do yourself a favor and pick one up before making any Mardi Gras plans. You can even download the digimag and keep it with you.
Mardi Gras Chronicles (Errol Laborde): New Orleans’s foremost authority on Mardi Gras history, Errol Laborde, guides readers on a tour of Carnival through stories of the individuals who made Mardi Gras what it is today. Get your facts on Mardi Gras straight by reading about the trappings and traditions of Carnival. Breathtaking photographs, both historical and modern, don the pages, and of course, recipes for the season in true New Orleans fashion. You shouldn’t join the greatest show on Earth until you know where it came from.
The “Baby Dolls”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition (Kim Marie Vaz): The Million Dollar Baby Dolls, an African American women’s organization who used profits from working in the red-light district to compete with other Black prostitutes at Mardi Graas, formed in 1912 and redefined Carnival tradition as one of the first women’s organizations to mask and perform at Mardi Gras. Kim Vaz traces them through 100 years of history, from Storyville-era brothels and dance halls to their re-emergence in post-Katrina New Orleans. This book will open your eyes to another side of Carnival and show you how the Baby Dolls exploited stereotypes and empowered an incredibly marginalized female demographic.
Quintessential New Orleans
Bourbon Street: A History (Richard Campanella): Everyone knows Bourbon Street, right? It’s one of the most well known spans of mile-long urban space where tourists and locals alike (but let’s face it, mostly tourists) go to revel, especially during Mardi Gras season. What would Mardi Gras be without partying on Bourbon? Before you head out, pick up this book to learn about how the most well-known address in North America got to be that way. Campanella weaves a powerful narrative detailing how politics, money, race, sex, organized crime, and tourism influenced the street that is so much more than the epicenter of Mardi Gras.
Unfathomable City (Rebecca Snedeker/Rebecca Solnit): If I had to choose one New Orleans book for you to read, this would be it. This brilliant reinvention of a traditional atlas will turn your view of the city upside down and make you question everything you thought you knew about New Orleans. Pairings of phenomenally rendered maps with beautifully written essays assemble this vibrant, quintessential New Orleans book. The innovative atlas features 22 full color two-page spread maps that will reinvent the city for you. Oh, and there’s a map that pairs parade routes with live oak corridors. If you love New Orleans and don’t own this book, you need to rush to the book store right now. I’m not kidding.
The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans (Susan Larson): If you’re like me, you would prefer to sit in your collapsible chair at the back of the crowd with a good drink and a good book and view from afar as people squabble over plastic beads. This definitive guide to literary New Orleans is just the book. Part New Orleans literary history, part tour guide, part literary calendar, part book list, and part lagniappe, this book is just plain fun. From a book list of all the quintessential New Orleans books to 10 ways to “get your gay on” in NOLA and the sexiest places in NOLA to read a book, this book has all of your Mardi Gras bookworm bases covered.
New Orleans Memories: One Writer’s City (Carolyn Kolb): What I like about this book of short essays is that it can be devoured all at once in the five hours you spend waiting for Endymion or in the spans of one or two hours in between day parades. Kolb divides her essays into four sections: Food, Music, Literature, and of course, Mardi Gras, and she takes a look at more recent New Orleans history, such as Doberge cake and the Virgilians, Mardi Gras’s first super krewe. Pick the book up, put the book down to catch some beads, then pick it up again. This book is perfect to stick in your bag with the king cake and beer.
Why New Orleans Matters (Tom Piazza): If I had to choose two New Orleans books for you to read, this would be the second. This book embodies the spirit of the city so well and explains, just as the title says, why New Orleans matters. Piazza explains all of the things this city has brought to the world, from jazz, Carnival, and creole cooking to deep undercurrents of racism, corruption, and injustice, and how the people of this city endure and overcome. I’ll leave you with one line of this book that explains why you should buy it: “If [New Orleans] dies, something precious and profound will go out of the world forever.” If someone asks why you have tears in your eyes, just blame it on getting hit in the face with beads.
The New Orleans Voodoo Handbook (Kenaz Filan): What would a list of Mardi Gras books be without a little voodoo? Voodoo isn’t just dolls and heebie jeebies, it’s a real, bonafide religion. In this book, initiated Vodou (yes, I spelled that right) Priest Kenaz Filan helps you discover the rituals, practices, and tools to become a voodoo worshiper and understand the origins and major figures in New Orleans voodoo. He reveals how to call on the saints and spirits for love, money, healing, and retribution and even includes directions to create gris-gris bags and voodoo dolls. Be careful how you use them.
New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence (Randolph Delehanty, Richard Sexton): The title of this book so perfectly describes Mardi Gras, with its elegant and oh so decadent balls and royalty. Richard Sexton presents more than 200 full color glorious photographs of New Orleans, from balcony-lined streets to ornate public buildings and even some intriguing private homes. Randolph Delehanty contributes insightful words to illuminate the exuberant lifestyle, both public and private, that makes New Orleans a city of both elegance and decadence. Read it while indulging in a piece of Randazzo’s king cake to feel especially decadent.
New Orleans Classics
A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole): Of course, no New Orleans book list is complete without mentioning the most quintessential New Orleans book of all. Plus, most people bumble around at Mardi Gras just like Ignatius Reilly. This Pulitzer Prize winner is an American comic masterpiece told through the eyes of Lucky Dog vendor Ignatius J. Reilly, who stumbles about New Orleans in a Don Quixote-esque story sure to split your sides. A word to the wise: if you start reading this book, you might just miss all the parades you planned on going to, because you won’t want to put it down. At least you won’t be able to bump into the Ignatius Reilly statue on Canal Street while you’re walking with the book in your hand. Every Mardi Gras, he goes safely into storage.
The Moviegoer (Walker Percy): Binx Bolling is a lost soul, much like many tourists during Mardi Gras. Instead of parades, his one escape is going to the movies. This National Book Award winning classic takes place smack dab in the middle of Mardi Gras over the course of one week where Binx tries to find himself amid the carnival that surrounds him. Although admittedly not the book to get you in the party mood, it is a terrific classic to wind down with at the end of a long day of parading.