For a long time, the word “alternative” has meant “substitute”. For example, you can drink soy milk as an alternative to regular milk. Somewhere along the line we also started using the word “alternative” to mean something that exists alongside something else that is more mainstream. Alternative music is a sort of artsy parallel to pop and rock. Alternative fashion – like emo and Goth – exists alongside mainstream fashion.

In New Orleans, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re experiencing an alternative that, until 2021, was inconceivable. Alternative Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras has traditionally been the single most unifying event that underpins our definition of ourselves as New Orleanians. Even with the occasional political and social differences that have been aired over the years, Mardi Gras parades and Mardi Gras day are a level playing field of joy and exuberance that unites us. It simply doesn’t exist in any other American city.

And then there’s the extraordinary impact that Mardi Gras has on our local economy.

Well, none of that is happening this year. 2021 is the year of Alternative Mardi Gras.

Peter Ricchiuti’s guests on this edition of Out to Lunch are finding ways to cope with the new reality. And to create Alternative Mardi Gras.

Devin de Wulf is founder of Krewe of Red Beans.

Devin de Wulf - King of Alternative Mardi Gras

Devin de Wulf – King of Alternative Mardi Gras

Krewe of Red Beans started out as a traditional Mardi Gras Krewe in 2008. But it wasn’t till the Pandemic of 2020 that it matured into a unique arts-activist version of a New Orleans social aid and pleasure club.

Devin deWulf and his krewe figured out a way to support shuttered restaurants, over-worked front line medical workers, and out-of-work musicians. They raised money and paid it to struggling restaurants to make meals, that they then paid out of work musicians to deliver, as donations to frontline medical workers.

Then, when Mardi Gras was effectively canceled, Devin and his Krewe of Red beans created a project called Hire a Mardi Gras Artist, which does just that. They again used donated funds, this time to hire Mardi Gras artists to turn New Orleans houses into works of art that resemble stationary Mardi Gras parade floats.

Seeing there are no Mardi Gras parades to go to this year, how are you going to end up with bags of beads? You know, all those beads that seem like a must-have item – till Ash Wednesday when you suddenly wonder, “What am I going to do with all these beads?”

Well, this year, the year of Alternative Mardi Gras, you can go through that process in reverse. You can start out with bags of beads, and use them to decorate your house. Where do you  get our beads? The Mardi Gras Recycle Center.

The Mardi Gras Recycle Center is a part of an organization that’s been around since 1953, called ArcGNO. ArcGNO is centered around providing care and employing people with disabilities or developmental delays, like Autism or Down Syndrome.

Queen of Recycled Beads - Sherrana McGee Stemley

Queen of Recycled Beads – Sherrana McGee Stemley

The Manager of ArcGNO’s Mardi Gras Recycle Center is Sherrana McGee Stemley.

Mardi Gras 2021 is unlike any Mardi Gras that has come before it, but the lack of organized parades and the cancelation of balls and parties is only fueling the Mardi Gras spirit in the city.

Peter Ricchuiti, ArcGNO's Queen of Recycled Beads - Sherrana McGee Stemley, Krewe of Red Beans' Devin de Wulf, Out to (virtual) Lunch

Peter Ricchuiti, ArcGNO’s Queen of Recycled Beads – Sherrana McGee Stemley, Krewe of Red Beans’ Devin de Wulf, Out to (virtual) Lunch

Photos by Jill Lafleur. And check out the genesis of Katrina Brees’ Bearded Oysters Mardi Gras Krewe on this iconic episode of Out to Lunch.

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