I love Mardi Gras in New Orleans but we simply couldn’t afford to go this year. When I’m at a parade, I suffer from “bead frenzy” – where I want to grab those throws, no matter how many tons of cheap plastic beads I have stashed away in the back of a closet. It gets crazy… but that’s the idea. I love grabbing beads, and especially Doubloons… but there is one Mardi Gras throw that I have never caught and always wanted. I wanted a Zulu Coconut.
The Krewe of Zulu – full name Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club – has a long and storied history, intimately intertwined with the racial politics and culture of New Orleans. The legend is that Zulu started out as a satire on and parody of the upper-crust white celebration of Mardi Gras. After its beginings in the first decade of the 20th century, Zulu became the largest primarily African-American parade in New Orleans’ colorful panoply of Mardi Gras Krewes.
Zulu had its struggles over the years. The civil rights movement in the 1960’s threatened the Krewe, but it was able to survive and reformed its image somewhat. Katrina was a terrible shock, both financially and spiritually, but the Krewe fought its way back. Now, the climax of Carnival in New Orleans is on Tuesday, Mardi Gras itself, with the two (arguably) most famous Krewes taking to the streets, The Krewe of Rex, and The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.
Through all the changes and decades though, Zulu was famous for one thing especially. The most desirous of all Carnival throws – the Zulu Coconut.
In the early days, long before cheap chains of Chinese-made beads, the parades threw expensive glass necklaces. The folks of Zulu could not afford these and decided to purchase inexpensive coconuts and hand them out instead. Over the years these involved into hand-painted and prized souvenirs.
There is an inherent problem, however, with throwing something as hard and heavy as a coconut from an elevated parade float into the middle of a frenzied crowd. A lot of people were getting hurt. In 1987, Zulu was unable to get any insurance coverage and there was a halt to the throwing of coconuts. The legislature had to step in.
Anywhere else in the country, the government would ban the throwing of coconuts. Louisiana is not anywhere else, however. In 1988, Governor Edwin W. Edwards signed Louisiana State Bill #SB188, the “Coconut Bill”, into law removing liability from injuries resulting from a coconut – enabling the tradition to resume. Instead of banning the coconut, they banned the lawsuits.
They did stop throwing – the coconuts are now, more or less, handed out. Also, they started using imported carefully hollowed out ‘nuts that are a lot lighter (though more fragile). They still are all hand-painted by the Krewe members. There are still lawsuits, but the tradition continues. According to most counts, about one hundred thousand coconuts are handed out on Mardi Gras during the Zulu parade.
Still, they are hard to get. I know people that have been going to Carnival in New Orleans their entire life and never had one on their paws. Most folks I talked to said you had to know someone in Zulu and make an appointment to meet them along the route to get a coconut.
I wanted one… wanted it bad.
I was talking about this to my son Lee, who lives in New Orleans and goes to school at Tulane.
“Oh, yeah dad, I get Zulu coconuts every year, it’s no big deal.”
“You’re kidding me Lee. What do you do with them?”
“Oh, I mostly give them to girls. Do you want one?”
“Yes I want one. I really want one.”
“I’ll get you one next Mardi Gras.”
He went on to tell me his secret method of getting Zulu coconuts, which I will not share here. It is ingenious, simple, and foolproof … and something I don’t want to make public.
So, this year, on Tuesday afternoon, while I was staring at a computer screen at work, a text came in to my phone from Lee.
“Got 2 Coconuts 4 U”
He did drop one later (though I suspect he might have given it to a girl) – and he forgot to bring the other one to Lafayette when we drove there for his Rugby Game – but the other day he came home for a surprise weekend visit and brought me my coconut.
It’s not a thing of beauty – simply a coconut spray painted a bilious gold, with some glitter paint pen decorations and two cheap googly eyes glued on. Lee dropped this one too – I glued a piece back on but it still has one busted hole under one eye.
I love it, though. I need to build a little shelf to display it properly… maybe next to my little monster heads in boxes.
I have always wanted a Zulu coconut.