MoonPies and Merry Widows: Mardi Gras hits Mobile, Alabama

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A parade rider throws beads on Joe Cain Day during Mardi Gras in Mobile, Ala., Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. Joe Cain Day, named for a clerk who started Mobile's modern Mardi Gras by dressing up and parading through town in the late 1860s after the Civil War, roared back to life after taking a year off because of the pandemic. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

MOBILE, Ala. – Alabama’s port city danced and squealed to the prime event of its Carnival season on Sunday, a quirky bash honoring the man credited with helping make the nation’s first Mardi Gras celebration what it is — a smaller, toned-down version of New Orleans' mega-party.

Joe Cain Day, named for a clerk who started Mobile's modern Mardi Gras by dressing up and parading through town in the late 1860s after the Civil War, roared back to life after taking a year off because of the pandemic. Marchers tossed MoonPie treats, colorful beads, stuffed animals and plastic cups along a more than 2-mile route lined with huge oak trees.

Like New Orleans, its much larger Gulf Coast neighbor to the west, Mobile has elaborate, professionally produced parades, and balls where women wear long gowns and men dress in tuxedos. Members of social groups called krewes spend thousands on costumes and items to throw from floats.

But some of the biggest crowds of the season in Mobile are for the Joe Cain Procession, a down-home mix of fun and local fable where anyone can join in a parade for free. The theme of the festivities supposedly comes from Cain himself: “Have a good time but don’t get bad.”

The day began, as always, with a group of veiled women in all-black mourning dresses who portray "Cain's Merry Widows” gathering at his grave in an old city cemetery, followed by a street party at the house where he lived near downtown. Drinks in hand, the widows threw beads with signed black medallions — a prime Mardi Gras prize in Mobile.

“He loved me the best!” one of the widows wailed in a mock cry.

City resident Sean McQuade got a front-row spot for the procession and snagged beads, MoonPies and a lot more. Joe Cain Day is better than everything else in Mardi Gras, even Fat Tuesday, he said.

“It's everybody's parade. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, Black or white, man or woman. Everybody is having fun,” said McQuade.

With most of the 2021 Carnival season canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, only a few activities were held in Mobile last year. Still, dozens showed up at the Joe Cain house on last year's Sunday before Fat Tuesday for a smaller-than-normal party.

While New Orleans’ celebration dwarfs festivities elsewhere on the coast, Mobile’s claim to fame is that it began celebrating Mardi Gras in 1703, before New Orleans. More than 40 parades are planned in the Mobile area before festivities end with Fat Tuesday.