As a recent transplant to Texas from Chicago, I have been avidly pursuing a full cultural immersion into Southern life. I listen to country music on the radio, incorporate “y’all” into e-mails to friends, and drag my roommates out every weekend in search of genuine Texas cuisine. But in a college town like Austin, many of those around me are fellow wayward Northerners, and I have recently found myself staring longingly at the Texas map. So when I heard about the “Mardi Gras! Galveston: Red White and Blue” celebration, I started pestering Katie and Lindsey to get out of the city with me and travel southward where the accents were thicker and I was sure I’d find the Southern comfort I’d been seeking. When I mentioned that Galveston was on the Gulf, my Midwest-born-and-raised roommates were sold, and I made reservations for the three of us to join the 500,000 people that descend upon Galveston for the biggest Mardi Gras party in the state.
After a four-hour Saturday morning drive, we pulled up to the Hilton Galveston Island Resort on Seawall Boulevard. Upon checking in we received our room keys, parking pass, and what was to be the first of many strands of beads. Much to my roommates horror I donned my straw cowboy hat (“We’re in Texas and it’s Mardi Gras . . . what better time to wear it?”) and marched outside to find the shuttle to the Strand National Historic Landmark District where the real party was. We were now officially revelers.
When the shuttle, which Katie aptly called “the drunk bus for adults,” dropped us off at Twenty-sixth and Santa Fe, we immediately knew we were in the thick of it. Austin country music artist Jesse Dayton crooned on one of the district’s two outdoor stages. Canned music competed for our attention from venues like JuJu Hangout and Bar. Vendors brought me back to my childhood days at the Nebraska State Fair offering such fair food favorites as funnel cakes, turkey legs, and (insert meat product here)-on-a-stick.
But what really got our attention were the beads. Beads in every color. Rubber ducky beads. Texas flag beads. Sponge Bob beads. And a variety of private part beads in the tradition of Mardi Gras exhibitionism. And they were everywhere. Every reveler was heavy laden (our complimentary strands from the hotel no longer seemed impressive), every vendor had a smorgasbord of styles for sale, and every balcony along the street supplied a torrential downpour of strands. Hoards of men and women, girls and boys, jostled for these plastic riches. I soon learned that my cowboy hat drew the attention of those above, and served as what I fondly called “protective headgear,” because people don’t toss beads—they throw them.
Eventually, we had cricks in our necks from looking up, and pains in our backs from the weight of our bounty, and we decided it was time to explore the other forms of entertainment. One of the performers that night was Chubby Checker, and I dragged my roommates down the street to get a better look. We stood there dumbstruck as the singer who took rock and roll by storm in 1959, pranced, ponied and twisted—with the help of some sort of balancing equipment (what looked to be a cross between an elliptical machine and a guitar stand)—onstage in the tightest of jeans. More than forty years after “The Twist” came out, Chubby Checker managed to get the AARP-aged crowd rolling with favorites like “Pony Time” “Hooka Tooka” and “Blueberry Hill.” But as a group of three twentysomethings, we soon got our fill of thrills and decided it was time for some food.
Just next to the stage, at 2314 Strand, the pizzas, burgers and sandwiches advertised at Yaga’s Café and Bar answered our grumbling stomachs’ calls. I was near apoplectic with hunger and practically inhaled my portion of the spinach-artichoke dip and Kelli’s Veggie Burger. The Jamaican-style restaurant was packed with partyers looking for a break from the cold and enjoying the long list of Soul Soups, Cookshack Specials, Yagatizers, and Yaga pies, burgers, and sandwiches. Others partook in Yaga’s specialty drinks in the restaurant’s new outdoor patio, which offered heat lamps and a view of the Chubby Checker crowd.
After stuffing ourselves past the point of recognition, we waddled outside just in time to catch one of biggest events of the weekend—the Momus Parade. Featuring eighteen marching bands, 25 elaborate floats, and more than six hundred riders, the parade begins at Seawall Boulevard and winds its way down to the Strand. The Knights of Momus Krewe, one of eighteen Mardi Gras societies, has been a central part of the Galveston celebration since the festival’s inception in 1871. Momus currently boasts around 650 members from the Galveston and Houston areas whose sole raison d’être is to promote Mardi Gras in Galveston. The all-volunteer group spends between $200,000 and $250,000 each year on the parade, which, along with their Mardi Gras ball and debutante presentation, marks the culmination of their calendar. One of the debutantes is selected as the Momus “Queen” and a gentleman who has contributed to the community and the Krewe is selected as “King.” But I had missed the lesson on debutante society in my informal Southern education, and throughout the parade, my roommates and I tried to guess what Momus was (was it similar to the Shriners?) and where the King and Queen came from (were they high school homecoming royalty?) and why the people on the floats all seemed to be adults.
When the parade cleared out we wandered the streets in search of somewhere warm, and found ourselves drawn to LaKing’s Confectionery (2323 Strand), an old-fashioned store featuring nineteenth-century candymaking formulas, a twenties soda fountain, Purity ice cream, and Duncan coffee. It wasn’t long before I felt compelled to find a space in my stuffed stomach for a combination pumpkin pie and cinnamon ice cream cone—pure heaven! I also perused the selection of more than fifty homemade candies and bought a bag of the specialty saltwater taffy to take home.
Now on a sugar high, I felt a renewed inspiration to get a true Texas experience and lured my roommates across the street for one last hurrah—a ride on a mechanical bull. For $5 I was able to play cowgirl, waving my beloved hat in the air and holding on for dear life. For the first time since my move I felt very Texan.
The next morning on our way out of town we decided to grab some breakfast. Faced with the eternal question of IHOP or Waffle House, I demanded we go to the latter, convinced it was a Southern thing (I was still riding tall and proud in my cowboy hat). But with our plates came a serving of true Southern immersion—grits. I left them untouched, paid the bill, and promptly drove us to Starbucks. Cowboy hat, debutante parade, and bull-riding skills aside, it turns out I still have a lot to learn about life in the South.