Carnival in Mobile, Alabama is over. In this coastal city, where the first American Mardi Gras was allegedly observed in 1703, all the parades and pageantry are done for the year; all the beads have been swept from the streets; all the Kings’ and Queens’ coronation costumes have been put away into storage.
But just 45 minutes south of the city, on picturesque Dauphin Island, the Mobile Jaycees are already hard at work planning one of the area’s other major events, the annual Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. Founded in 1929, the ADSFR has earned the Guinness Book of World Records title as the world’s largest fishing tournament, attracting thousands of fishermen to the area every summer for over 80 years now.
For the men who make up the Mobile Jaycees– working class guys who make a living as landscapers, plumbers and police officers– the Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo is every bit as important as Mardi Gras, carrying on a rich maritime tradition that dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years.
“We just got a call from the captain of a local shrimp boat,” said Jeff George, the Executive Director of Sea Turtle Inc. “They’ve got a sea turtle that was trapped in their nets this morning, and he’s in pretty bad shape. Do you have time to help out with a rescue?” Our answer to this sort of question is always an emphatic YES!
We were about 15 minutes into our tour of the Sea Turtle Inc facility in South Padre Island when George interrupted our conversation with Administrative Assistant Jean Pettit. We immediately dropped everything, piled into Pettit’s car, and made our way across the causeway to the town of Port Isabel.
Along the way, Pettit explained that this was the fourth call they’d gotten this year from the shrimp boat, The John Henry. The Texas Shrimp Association actively supports the use of Turtle Excluder Devices– a grid of bars with an opening, either at the top or bottom of the trawl net, through which larger animals such as sea turtles and sharks are ejected.
But occasionally large barnacles on a turtle’s back cause them to get entangled in nets and fishing lines, leaving them submerged and unable to catch a breath. This can lead to shock or even death if the turtle does not receive treatment. So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that we hustled down the dock towards the boat.
But beyond their sensational suits laced with gorgeous gems, fabulous feathers and impressively intricate beadwork lies a rich cultural history dating back nearly 300 years.
And, until fairly recently, this fascinating story was unknown to virtually everyone who lived outside NOLA’s tightly-knit “Black Masking Indian” community.
Held every year on the day before Ash Wednesday, Mardi Gras (a.k.a. Fat Tuesday, which falls on February 17 in 2015) in New Orleans is a cultural spectacle to behold, rivaled only by Carnival in Brazil and the Holi Festival of India.
But, as impressive as the Crescent City’s celebration of the historically French Catholic holiday is, America’s first Mardi Gras festivities were held in what is now known as Mobile, Alabama.
One of the main reasons Mary and I work so well together as both romantic and business partners is that we had a lot of things in common long before we met.
Both of us have a deep-seated passion for immersing ourselves in other cultures, and did so through art, music and food long before we had the means to travel the world. Both of us have Acadian (or French-Canadian) blood on our maternal side– her mother’s maiden name was Coté, while mine was Beaudet. And though serendipity never led to our meeting at the time, both of us used to frequent a killer Cajun restaurant across the street from Emory University, which Mary attended.
Given our mutual love of cuisine and culture, I suppose it’s odd that we’d never done a food tour until we got to Lafayette, in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country. Lafayette was recently deemed “the tastiest town in the South” by Southern Living magazine. And our day with Marie Ducote Comeaux– the veteran Louisiana history teacher who founded Cajun Food Tours in 2012– offered an incredible overview of the rich culinary traditions of Acadian culture.