Like most people who grew up in south Louisiana, Norby Chabert has a vivid memory when it comes to his favorite things he's caught at Mardi Gras parades. One of those, from when he was just a young boy, has nothing to do with the glittering plastic beads, small toys or other trinkets most often tossed off the side of Carnival floats. Instead, it's Choc-O-Jels.
The small, chocolate-covered sandwich cakes with a fruit jam in the center are now called Jelly Creme Pies, but back then, Chabert just knew them as the Little Debbie cakes his grandmother would keep in the refrigerator for a cold snack. He remembers the moment on a parade route when a float-rider lifted a whole case of the tiny cakes into view.
"When I saw that, it was like a visceral reaction," he said. "I saw that, I grabbed a box, and I sat on the ground and ate like four of them. It was like, this is the best thing ever."
These days, Chabert, a political consultant and lobbyist, is a float-rider himself as part of a parading organization in Houma, Louisiana, a city with deep Cajun heritage about an hour southwest of New Orleans. When it's his turn to ride, he still stocks up on the usual beads, small toys, stuffed animals and other trinkets known as parade throws, which get tossed by Carnival parade riders into the clambering crowds below. But he's also sure to load up on edible snacks, too. Over the years, he's thrown packages of ramen noodles, individually-wrapped giant pickles (he does not recommend trying this yourself), and Chee-Wees, a New Orleans-born corn puff snack.
"I'll just prop a case of Chee-Wee up on the side of the float and open up that box and I'll start throwing," Chabert said. "And when people see that, they go nuts."
Food traditions are deeply tied to Mardi Gras. There’s king cake, a treat only on offer in New Orleans for the weeks of Carnival, parade-side family picnics complete with cold Popeyes fried chicken and homemade sandwiches and, in Cajun country in southwest Louisiana, the Mardi Gras Day ritual of "begging" neighbors for the ingredients to make a gumbo. Still, the lesser-examined use of snacks as parade throws are as much a part of that tradition as any other, a mixture of both float-riding status for having great throws and, in the end, giving the people what they want.
"The history of Carnival and food-ways is incredibly rich, diverse and long," said Cart Blackwell, the curator of the Mobile Carnival Museum in Mobile, Alabama, which is home to the largest American Carnival celebration outside New Orleans. "The connection between food and throws is elemental."
That modern connection, Blackwell said, began in early American Mardi Gras traditions in the 18th and 19th centuries with food menus getting more closely tied to themes for balls and other high-society functions. By the mid-20th century, when sanitation and industrial food packaging improved to the point of mass-produced snacks, food items were finding their way onto parade floats, too.
In the early 1950s, Blackwell said, a member of Mobile's oldest women's parading society, the Maids of Mirth, was frustrated after throwing boxes of Cracker Jacks.
"They're rectangular boxes, and you hit someone in the face with that and it'll do some damage," Blackwell explained.
Instead, that Maids of Mirth member got her hands on some Moon Pies, a soft, chocolate-covered marshmallow graham cracker sandwich, which is made in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In his years in Mobile, he's also seen float-riders toss China Doll rice, grits, and even whole links of Conecuh Sausages.
"It was ideally suited for throwing off a float," Blackwell said, and a new tradition was born. To this day, Moon Pies are one of the most popular throws in south Alabama and often seen outside Mobile, too, in places like Slidell, Louisiana, where an entire parade celebrates the snack, throwing more than 50,000 in a single year.
Still, "Moon Pies are the tip of the iceberg," Blackwell said. In his years in Mobile, he's also seen float-riders toss China Doll rice, grits, and even whole links of Conecuh Sausages. In New Orleans, Liz Williams, the founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, said she's seen parade-goers catch small bags of crab boil, peppermints, pralines, and small bottles of spices during the city's annual St. Patrick's Day parade, plus whole cabbages, potatoes, and onions. This Mardi Gras, the Krewe of Iris will throw small bags of coffee, and jambalaya and red beans and rice mixes.
In recent years, float-riders and parade attendees alike have voiced concerns with the amount of plastic—often non-reusable—that gets thrown from floats.
"It's seizing upon things people want, whether it satisfies your sweet tooth right off or you catch it and cook it when you get home," Blackwell said.
The tradition of tossing food off parade floats, Chabert said, feels like one that will continue to grow in popularity as Carnival-celebrating cities wrestle with the environmental impacts of the throw tradition. In recent years, float-riders and parade attendees alike have voiced concerns with the amount of plastic—often non-reusable—that gets thrown from floats. In New Orleans, a city plagued by flooding concerns, 46 tons of beads were infamously hauled out of storm drains along a popular parade route just five years ago.
"People don't want to be part of that problem," he said, when you can have the instant gratification of ripping open a bag of Chee-Wees during a pause in a parade.
On a recent trip to a New Orleans parade outfitter, which supplies float-riders with the throws they need to stock up on for Carnival season, Chabert noticed a stack of Chee-Wees Mardi Gras snack cases, which include both the original snack and a caramel popcorn, stacked by the door, as well as both sticks of gum and Pixie Sticks a yard long. "You can definitely see a change in what people want."
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