The transformative power of Carnival changes ordinary men and women into make-believe monarchs and familiar streets into promenades of colorful splendor. It also converts schoolyards into food courts, it recasts church kitchens as short-order snack shacks and, for 10 days each year, it turns bank consultant Jerry Plough into the manager of an open-air beer bar and canteen for the benefit of his teenage daughter’s school.
“Any school has people they call on to organize and show support, your golf tournament people, your school fair people,” said Plough, president of the Academy of the Sacred Heart Fathers’ Club. “We have that, but we have Mardi Gras people, too.”
And so, as the Uptown parades turn past Sacred Heart’s Mater Campus at the corner of Napoleon and St. Charles avenues, Plough and his crew of volunteer dads sling cans of beer, scoop red beans and rice, ladle cheese sauce over nachos and pour frozen daiquiris from a decorated trailer each day through Mardi Gras. They also manage a pod of portable toilets and a swath of parking spaces as more amenities for parade goers and as moneymakers for the private Uptown girls’ school.
With Carnival unfolding at their doorsteps, a string of schools and churches in close proximity to the parade routes follow suit, tapping the thronging crowds and ample appetites of the season for major annual fundraisers.
The proceeds they reap pay for everything from computers and school supplies to overseas charitable work.
For parade goers in need of a hot meal, a cold drink and perhaps a clean restroom, one of these stops can be a welcome oasis (see sidebar for listings and details).
Food and fellowship
St. Stephen Catholic School, for instance, turns its Napoleon Avenue campus into a multifaceted Carnival haven. Homemade chili and jambalaya and griddled hot dogs and hamburgers are served through the open cafeteria windows, along with cups of beer and wine.
Attendants staff the school’s restrooms, which are opened to parade goers for a fee. Parking spots are sold by the day and even the cafeteria tables are rented out, usually to families who want an indoor home base where they can relax between parades.
It takes a concerted effort, especially on Sunday, when a schedule of parades leading up to Bacchus stretches the day from donuts and coffee at 6 a.m. through a cleanup time that can end after midnight. But in addition to the money it generates, the Carnival activities also nurture the school’s sense of community.
“The kids love it, the parents love it,” said St. Stephen principal Peggy LeBlanc. “Our volunteers don’t even realize they’re working after a while because it’s just so fun. It’s a family atmosphere, and you’re right there in the middle of it on the parade route.”
Metal-sided food stalls make the school playground look like an amusement park midway, while kids romp around the fenced schoolyard and families eat together at picnic tables.
From some stalls, parents and church members serve turkey legs, po-boys and baked goods, and the Old Metairie restaurant Mark Twain’s Pizza Landing serves slices from another.
St. John has also found more ways to open the day’s fundraising potential to others. The landscaping crew that maintains the church property has a stall serving tacos, flautas, tamales and empanadas. And James Taglauer, a retired Lutheran pastor, runs a stall selling meat pies and crawfish pies.
Each year, the 80-year-old leaves his home in Folsom early in the morning and stays at his Canal Street booth until late in the night, raising money that pays for scholarships for schoolchildren in the city of Usulutan, El Salvador.
“It’s the fellowship part of it, the feeling that you’re doing something for others,” said Taglauer. “We see certain people year after year. They always come by and that becomes just part of the day.”
Roots on the route
Though traditions run strong at these Carnival fundraisers, there are changes to the line-up from year to year. Sophie B. Wright Charter School on Napoleon Avenue normally serves fish plates and gumbo during the parades, though with its school under construction those plans are on hold this year.
But a few blocks away, St. George’s Episcopal Church is back in rotation this year.
During each Uptown parade day, the church kitchen becomes a Carnival cafe called Mardi Gras Spirits, serving hamburgers, jambalaya, red beans and rice, soft drinks, wine and Abita beer from kegs donated by a generous church member.
Proceeds fund St. George’s outreach programs, including Dragon Café, the weekly meal it provides for the needy throughout the year in the same facility, explained coordinator Ed Brown.
A retired insurance executive, Brown also tried to retire from Mardi Gras Spirits duties, so for the past two years the program was on hiatus. But Brown was lured back – in part through its own ties to the church, where his great grandparents worshipped in the 1800s – and in part from a feeling of obligation to the people who frequent Mardi Gras Spirits.
“People would come up last year and you could see they were really disappointed that we weren’t doing it,” Brown said. “So we’re back and hopefully some new blood will help us keep it going.”
Nearby, Rayne Memorial Methodist Church also sets up concession stands, though here the offerings are more about handy snacks than a full meal.
Tables are stocked with ooey-gooey bars, sweet potato pies, mini king cakes, chips and soft drinks. Proceeds help fund youth mission outings, and youth coordinator Shaun Darnall said the young church members are responsible for helping run it all.
“It shows our kids that not everything is just given to you, that you have to work for things you want to do,” she said.
That’s not the only lesson. While St. Charles Avenue is a far cry from the famously tawdry scenes of Bourbon Street, young volunteers still can certainly get an eyeful along the Uptown route during Carnival. But Darnall sees it in a positive light.
“It teaches our youth some wonderful lessons about alcohol consumption,” she said. “We’ll have a discussion that starts like, ‘Remember that really drunk guy who came over wearing panties on his head?’ It’s opened up some opportunities for us to talk about responsible behavior.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.