Journey Jotters

Bitten by the travel bug

The itinerary for the first day of the trip was to reach New Orleans and do the ghost tour with Free Tours by Foot at 730 pm. The rest of the afternoon was quite open.

As if to get any future problems out of the way, the flight from Dallas to New Orleans was delayed by a half hour. But once we took off, it was all smooth sailing. We took an Uber to the hotel, where the staff had a room available, even though it was a bit early. Mr. JJ and I thought to finish lunch at the French Quarter and go to the Warehouse District, where the National WW II museum and Mardi Gras World are located.

Unfortunately, Killer Po’boys was closed that day. So we were walking around the French Quarter when we came across Cunada. It was on my list of restaurants to try for its many vegetarian options. The interior was quiet, with only one couple dining in the back. There was a counter and bar to the front and right of the room, while a few white folding tables and chairs occupied the space to the left and the back. The decorations were typical of any Mexican fiesta.

The simplicity of the inside belied a staff that was quick and efficient and food that was delicious. We ordered the tortilla soup with fixings (tortilla strips, onions, avocado, crema, radish, and cilantro). The soup wasn’t much to speak of by itself, but once we added the fixings, it tasted sumptuous. The vegan ceviche was lemony and tasted of tomatoes mixed with well-cooked cauliflower and lentils. Perhaps it was the texture, but I wouldn’t say I liked the ceviche as much. We also ate one taco each; mine was the calabacitas, while Mr. JJ chose the taco de papa. The tacos were just adequate and oh! so fresh and highly reminiscent of our time in Mexico. I also ordered the hibiscus-infused Jamaican but couldn’t enjoy it as it was too sweet.

Taco de Calabacitas at Cunada

While we dined, two groups of college kids showed up. A couple of them mentioned visiting Cunada for the third time as they loved the food. Nothing could be a better testament to the food than thrice-returning customers!

We decided to look up the World War Museum with lunch out of the way. The Museum has several exhibits and a movie about 45 mins long. Since the Museum closed at 5 pm, we would need more time to enjoy it. So we decided to go to the Mardi Gras World instead.

Mardi Gras is such an integral part of NOLA history that we felt obligated to visit this store. Mardi Gras World is a working studio owned by Blaine Kern, generally regarded as “Mr. Mardi Gras” in New Orleans. Blaine helped his father build their first float on a mule-drawn wagon in 1932. In 1947, he established his studios to make a float for one of the local krewes. Since then, he has pushed for more detailed and extravagant floats for his customers and to the delight of the revelers!

King Kong model at Mardi Gras World

The studio runs tours daily; each lasts about an hour. Ours started with a 15-minute movie about the history and significance of Mardi Gras in NOLA. Followed by the distribution of the king cake, and then we set off to tour the studios. The whole facility was teeming with artists, architects, and painters. The guide showed us how float designs are first created on paper. Then cutouts are made using styrofoam which can be easily manipulated into different shapes. Next, using the papier mache technique, the styrofoam figures are smoothed over and then sent for painting. We saw models in various stages of completion scattered throughout the studios. Of course, most of them were gigantic as befits a grand float.

We met Katy Perry, Clint Eastwood, King Kong, and Darth Maul, among others. They were so lifelike, it was uncanny! But even these giants paled in comparison to the actual floats! The massive floats sat on wooden platforms housed on a custom-melded chassis. The guide mentioned that the wooden floor was covered by muslin. Slowly, the main elements are added according to the original sketch. Eventually, flowers and other props add to the layered effect. 

The float’s inside has hooks designed to hang Mardi Gras beads and storage areas for doubloons, etc. There are seat belts for the riders and much-needed bathrooms for comfort! The floats are pulled by tractors and run on solid rubber tires to avoid any flat tires.

Each Krewe commissions its float annually. Once done with the parade, the floats return to Kern Studios, where the props are removed and the floats stripped down bare and painted white before they begin a new transformation journey for the following year.

One of the neat things at the studio was watching a robot named Pixie, who works on digital fabrication. Kern Studios employs cutting-edge technology with the use of this robot. The artists create a 2D sketch which is then transformed into a 3D model. Once all the details about the type of armature, prop material, and finish are decided, the information is fed to the robot. Pixie then works precisely and tirelessly, creating what she has been tasked to do. 

Pixie sculpting away! At Mardi Gras World (seen through glass window)

Named Pixie after a long-time beloved employee of the company, Pixie has enhanced the accuracy of the work and increased the production capabilities of the studio, leading to more employment.

We watched from the studio as Pixie sculpted away at her prop, ignoring her gawkers. A large mural on the wall behind her depicted the real-life Pixie and Blaine Kern, keeping a sharp eye over Pixie. As the tour ended, we walked the floor of the vast studio, admiring the colorful props everywhere, from the iconic to the whimsical to the ordinary. As we left the lobby, the staff announced a free shuttle that could drop us off on Canal street, close to our hotel.

At Canal Street, we found ourselves across from Cafe Beignet, one of the two beignet places on our list. So we walked over to join the long line, ordered our beignets and coffee, and waited in their indoor seating area. As luck would have it, the weather had cooled that morning after being balmy all winter. While we had to layer clothes to stay warm, it was the perfect weather to enjoy warm beignets and hot coffee. I was disappointed that the beignets smelled of overused oil. But they were warm and coated in powdered sugar, and I was glad about that.

Beignets at the Cafe Beignet

Satiated, we decided to skip exploring and took an Uber back to the hotel for a break before returning to the French Quarter for our ghost tour. Join us tomorrow for a review of the spooky ghost tour. Until then!

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