Cue the flying plastic beads and Professor Longhair tunes—it’s Mardi Gras season. The period leading up to Lent has well-established traditions around the Deep South, but in New Orleans it’s all about parades and parties. Amid the ruckus and revelry, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. Who better to turn to for a little navigation than Caroline Rosen. She’s the executive director of Tales of the Cocktail, a NOLA-based trade festival, who moonlights as a consummate caftan-clad hostess, throwing fabulous parties in her Marigny creole cottage. Read on for her insider’s scoop on the festivities, including her Mardi Gras survival guide, a list amassed over the years between go-cups and pots of gumbo.
“Mardi Gras is when New Orleans truly shows its hospitality. The city comes alive in a way that is so unique to New Orleans.”
What does Mardi Gras mean to you?
Mardi Gras is when New Orleans truly shows its hospitality. It’s having a group of friends wandering around and literally bumping into people. It’s being able to share an experience, a cocktail, a piece of fried chicken together. It brings everyone to the table. The entire city comes alive in a way that is so unique to New Orleans.
What’s your favorite part?
The big party we throw every year is on Mardi Gras Day. We’re two blocks outside the French Quarter—that’s where the St. Anne Parade meets the Wrecks Parade, and everyone is downtown. We get up at 5:30 in the morning. We’ve ordered McHardy’s chicken the day before, and we have our punches pre-made. We put biscuits in. We wander around, and at 10:30, the masses come to us. We have an 1810 creole cottage; we open those beautiful front doors up and turn on the music real loud.
You love a good punch.
We want to make sure our party is self- sustaining. People can help themselves. We want to be able to enjoy it and spend time with folks without being stuck in the kitchen or behind the bar.
What should a first timer know?
You’re gonna be walking a lot, so you’ve got to be comfortable. But I always think you should look fabulous too. I recommend a caftan and a headdress. Also, make sure you’re not overcommitting yourself. If you’ve got a breakfast date, a lunch date, and a dinner date, that’s too much. You should have snacks and access to booze that you can bottle quickly. And never try to take an Uber in the French Quarter.
What’s the biggest misconception?
When you think of Mardi Gras, some people have that Bourbon Street shot. It’s the flashing; it’s the seas of people. But it’s truly an experience that can be for everyone. You can choose your own Mardi Gras. If you want to have one with your family, you can have that. If you want to have a Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street, you can have that. That’s the most beautiful thing about Mardi Gras: It can be anything you want it to be.
What’s your best piece of Mardi Gras wisdom?
You can’t chase Mardi Gras; you have to let Mardi Gras come to you. We have a Rosen family rule that you can only have two planned actives on any given day during Mardi Gras. Otherwise, you’re chasing Mardi Gras.
Rosen’s Mardi Gras musts:
“Fried chicken is the best Mardi Gras food,” Rosen says. “It’s as good hot as it is cold (and it’s best at room temperature). It tastes as good with beer as it does with Champagne, and you can eat it sitting or standing.” Her favorite in New Orleans comes from McHardy’s. “You can smell it on your way to Broad Street.”
“I try to live like a flowy and luxurious actress from Hollywood’s golden age during Mardi Gras,” Rosen says. (That means caftans, fascinator hats, jangly jewelry, and “stolen hotel robes.”) “On Mardi Gras Day, I go into full face paint.”
“Have you ever eaten an entire bag of potato chips without realizing it? Just absentmindedly eating while chatting or watching TV?” Rosen asks. “That’s what crawfish are like during Mardi Gras.”
Poirier’s Cane Syrup
Charles Poirier is a maintenance worker in Lafayette Parish who grows heirloom sugarcane on the side. In the fall, he presses it into a highly coveted cane syrup—“the best you can buy,” Rosen says. “A shot of whiskey with a Poirier’s chaser lets you know it’s morning during Mardi Gras.”
It’s called Mardi Gras season for a reason. “And it’s a long one,” Rosen says. “A slow moment over your favorite coffee helps cut through the savagery.” She heads to Horn’s in her neighborhood for “what has to be the best café au lait in the city.” At home, it’s Stumptown coffee with steamed milk.
A Great Spotify Playlist
During Mardi Gras, Rosen and her husband often head to nearby Frenchmen Street to listen to live music. “But then we come back home for a late-night dance party,” she says. Her go-to jams run the gamut from New Orleans icon Dr. John to Minneapolis hip-hop artist Lizzo. (Find her playlist here.)
Rosen loves the way a punch bowl brings folks together (literally). Her go-to come Carnival season is Chimayo, a purple punch garnished with lemons, limes, and rosemary, “making it the perfect color scheme to set the scene.” (Recipe here.)
Rosen says she’ll be lucky to eat one real meal a day during Mardi Gras season. “The constant nibbling like a hunter-gatherer through the Uptown parade route and Downtown house parties doesn’t always satisfy a Mardi-Gras-sized appetite,” she says. “That’s when frozen food comes in.”
Hong Kong Market Duck Gumbo
“Hong Kong Market on the Westbank sells excellent barbecue duck, fresh from a stall inside the store,” she says. “I make a nice okra-ey gumbo, and then add the cooked duck on low heat for the last twenty or so minutes to get the flavors dancing together.”
The perfect Mardi Gras drink is low in sugar and not too strong— “something that will power you through rather than slowly tranquilize you,” Rosen says. And her Houston bartender friend Alba Huerta makes some of the best. Find the recipe for one of Rosen’s favorites, the sparkling julep, on our website. “It was made for parades,” she says. “I grow my own mint just for cocktails like this.” (Recipe here.)