The onset of a snowstorm dampened the turnout but not the Carnival spirits of dozens of families who attended the Mardi Gras celebration on March 3 at the Elting Memorial Library. The walls of the library’s community room were covered with wallpaper evoking the ornate cast-iron balconies lining the streets of the Big Easy; display cabinets were filled with Mardi Gras masks; and book aisles were festooned with purple, gold and green decorations.
Library director John Giralico welcomed visitors, some of whom came in costume; he himself wore black cuffed boots and a magnificent maroon and gold brocade frock coat with deeply winged black velvet lapels. He described it as appropriate dress for an “early 1800s gentleman from New Orleans,” though said gentleman might easily have been the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte.
Each new attendee was greeted upon entry with a mask and a pair of food tickets. One was redeemable for a salami-and-ham sandwich (or vegetarian substitute) on brioche, the favored bread of the French Quarter. To wash down the snack, library board member Laurie Hlavaty and some of her fellow volunteers were ladling out a rum-free Hurricane Punch made with pineapple, orange and lemon juice and ginger ale. Traditionally served in special glasses shaped like hurricane lamps, said Hlavaty, it was “a popular drink in New Orleans that hopefully makes us think not of snow, but of warm temperatures.”
Dessert was a slice of King Cake: a Mardi Gras specialty, flavored with lemon zest and dusted in tri-colored sugar. “It’s kind of like a bread, because it’s made with yeast,” explained Beryl Braden, a volunteer from the library’s youth group. One must bite into one’s King Cake with care, because there might be a lucky party favor inside, in the shape of a baby. “There’s one baby per cake. Whoever gets it in their piece gets a crown.”
Making crowns, Moon Pies and miniature parade floats were all featured in special workshops for kids at the library in the weeks leading up to the big party. A dozen such hand-constructed floats were paraded by their young creators along a carpet down the center of the community room to the strains of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” after which attendees were invited to cast votes for their favorites. In the end, every entry received a prize, with the biggest vote-getter — a remote-controlled diorama showing a cross-section of a beach intertidal zone featuring both shore and sea creatures — designated the “People’s Choice.”
Before and after the parade, attendees were entertained by one of the area’s premier jazz ensembles, the Bernstein Bard Trio, expanded to a quartet as the Bernstein Bard Bon Temps Band. Their repertoire for the evening leaned heavily toward classic Cajun tunes such as “Jolie Blonde” and “Diggy Diggy Lo,” mixed up with Hank Williams favorites “Jambalaya” and “You Win Again,” bluegrass songs verging into rockabilly including “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and some New Orleans street-festival marching anthems like the Meters’ “Mardi Gras Mambo.”
For grownups and kids alike, Amy Fall and Doug McDonnell offered a basic Cajun dance lesson. Decked out in turquoise cowboy boots, Fall demonstrated the simple step-together-step motion of the Cajun two-step to a “chunka-chunk” rhythm. “You’ll notice I’m not marching — just sort of skating,” she said as she and McDonnell led the group in a promenade around the room. Next came the Cajun waltz, performed as more of a flat-footed shuffle than the dips and rises of a Viennese waltz, she noted.
More songs were played, King Cake baby-holders crowned, float prizes awarded and bibelots — shiny plastic coins and strings of beads in traditional gold, purple and green — tossed out to all and sundry, as if an actual Mardi Gras parade were passing through downtown New Paltz. And then it was time to head back out again into the falling snow. But if Carnival comes, can spring be far behind?