Presented by our friends at Tasty Beverage Company
Photos and Story by Ryan Stancil | Illustrations by Cameron Laws
Back in February,Bit + Grain caught wind of a little piece of Cajun culture down in Carteret County.
Just inland, off The Straits of Harkers Island, between Whitehurst and Sleepy Creeks, lies the salty community of Gloucester, population of a little over 500 and a total area somewhere in the neighborhood of one-and-a-half square miles. Believe it or not, they have a post office. On February 14th, the unincorporated community celebrated Mardi Gras for the twenty-third straight year.
While I had never been to Gloucester, I am intimately familiar with the Carolina coast and made the trek down east with a set of preconceived notions about the community and the celebration - an eastern North Carolina interpretation of an increasingly commercialized holiday. I assumed the event would take place in a traditional town square with limited parking and that the cost of admission, listed as free on the event’s website, only guaranteed access to the festivities. I expected to hear overtones of the fading, yet iconic Harker’s Island accent, kitschy store bought Mardi Gras regalia, jazz and possibly a makeshift float.
My day in Gloucester turned out much differently than I had imagined: There was no town square, no parking battle, no mass-produced Mardi Gras wear, no Harker’s Island accent, no jazz, no float.
Instead, several rusted, tin roofed shelters and a small cinderblock community club building anchored the festival. A few tents and tarps, strung between the shady moss-covered live oaks, provided additional shelter. Everyone parked on the side of the road.
The costumes were made or assembled by hand and ranged from understated to outrageous. Most folks had, if only slightly, a North Carolina twang.
People danced to the greasy, raw and engaging Cajun tunes that wafted through the air.
Many visitors donated ingredients for the seafood, sausage and chicken gumbo and traveled to Gloucester the night before to chop vegetables and stir its roux.
To eat, you had to march in the abbreviated Mardi Gras run, a brief foot parade, right down the middle of Pigott Road. Everyone marched and everyone ate.
The scale of the event was impressive. The estimated 800 people who attended Gloucester’s Mardi Gras this year consumed sixty gallons of gumbo, twenty gallons of red beans, 100 pounds of rice and twenty fried turkeys.
The spirit of the event stuck with me, though. Afterwards, I kept wondering why.
I asked a number of folks about why they come to The festival. The most common answer,
Gloucester is 984 miles from the French Quarter of New Orleans and nearly a half-hour away from the closest Catholic church. And, as echoed by a festival organizer, it is likely few residents were familiar with the tradition prior to the inception of the annual celebration.
Back in the late 80s, festival founders Bryan and Barbara Blake stumbled upon a Cajun tune at an Old Time jam session and they were instantly hooked. They lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the time, and relocated to Gloucester after scouring the coast for a wooden boat-building community where Bryan could work. They soon assembled Unknown Tongues, a Cajun zydeco band, in 1990 and began celebrating Mardi Gras at the Gloucester community building two years later.
The Gloucester Mardi Gras celebration had humble beginnings. It was announced by word of mouth and through postcards. Gumbo preparation began on Saturday morning. Forty-some folks brought potluck dishes and hung around the community building, soaking in the sounds of a single band, Unknown Tongues.
Much has changed. The festival is now announced on social media, local news, and through email. Gumbo preparation begins Friday night. Those forty-some folks have turned into a family of hundreds. That single band has been joined by several others, including Gator Gumbo, Lost Girls, MSA Cajun Band, Zydeco Ya Ya, and Jackomo. It takes over a month to plan and sixty people to make it happen.
The festival’s growth means more work for its coordinators. “Even though we complain while we’re doing it, after everything is cleaned up and packed away its like we should do this for two days,” says Bryan Blake, “It definitely gets community together.”
A smattering of towns in North Carolina host annual Mardi Gras celebrations, each adds its own flavor and interpretation to the celebration; some resemble the carnivalesque Mardi Gras of our popular imagination while other’s, like Gloucester’s, are modeled after the rural Mardi Gras of Southwest Louisiana.
Gloucester’s carnival was anything but a stereotypical scene from Bourbon Street revelry. In rural Southwest Louisiana, Mardi Gras is about turning social norms upside down. Faces are painted, bodies are disguised in costume, and goods, namely food, are exchanged for free. Community, performance and playfulness are the heart of this kind of Mardi Gras.
Knowing this now, it all makes sense: the rural setting, donated ingredients, free gumbo, free Cajun music, a donation box supporting a local scholarship for graduating high school seniors, a used book sale for local libraries. At the core, behind all the masks, loud music and parading, the event is about taking, sharing, giving. It fits eastern North Carolina far better than the spectacle that is New Orleans Mardi Gras.
Across our state, in our cities and towns, a strong sense of community is alive and well. But, there was something special in Gloucester. People acknowledged each other in a way that was genuine and present, a way that embodied traditional notions of what it means to be hospitable, gracious, and inclusive. The event harkened to a slower time, a former decade.
Growing up in a rural community myself, I was fortunate to experience a type of community that can be hard to find. A community where a sense of connectedness and camaraderie is a sort of glue that helped hold things together. A community where food, conversation and hospitality is exchanged without expectations. Gloucester reminded me of the kind of community I remember from my childhood. It reminded me of the kind of community with which I imagine my grandparents were familiar. And it felt good.
I once heard that when you live somewhere, you take a part of that place with you when you leave. I often like to think that idea applies to places I visit, people I meet, and experiences I have. I left with something from Gloucester that day, but I’m not sure what it is yet. I didn’t take it though, Gloucester gave it to me. But I guess that’s the way rural Mardi Gras is supposed to work.
Getcha Tasty On
This April, Tasty Beverage Co., one of Raleigh’s original speciality beer stores, will open a storefront in Asheville. Johnny Belflower, beer enthusiast and owner of Tasty, is excited to bring his approach to beer to the mountain town’s burgeoning beer scene.
Beer is more than an alcoholic beverage to Belflower who says, “It brings people together. It makes food better. In our opinion its the most wonderful beverage on earth.”
Nestled in Raleigh’s vibrant Warehouse District, Tasty Beverage Company has been building community since August 2011. It is a home for the area’s growing beer scene and small business community. Tasty offers a broad selection of American and international craft beers, local meats and cheeses, a selection of wines and other fine beverages. It also partners with Oak City Cycling and New Belgium for weekly bike rides, regularly hosts beer tastings and special beer dinners with neighborhood restaurants.
Tasty is not just a bar or a beer store. Patrons go to Tasty to celebrate beer and to participate in its community. Stop by Tasty on a Sunday afternoon, and you may feel as though you’ve walked into your best friend’s mama’s kitchen. It is comfortable, friendly and fun. Belflower attributes that vibe to the patrons who have “made Tasty into the place that it is. We gave them the starting point, and they ran with it.”