Meet Mobile, Alabama
Article and photography by Jennifer Merrick
New Orleans has a cousin, and her name is Mobile. She’s cool and quirky, artsy but down-to-earth, and has a love of fun times and good food that is true to her French roots.
Located 150 miles east of New Orleans on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, Mobile (pronounced Mo-beel and not like a type of phone) has a shared history with the Big Easy. French-Canadian brothers established both colonies, and Mobile was the capital of French Louisiana in 1702 and part of New France for over 60 years.
Despite a (mostly) friendly rivalry, the cousin cities have a lot in common, first and foremost:
“Throw me something, mister!” is the call heard on streets during the two weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday as revellers line the streets to watch the floats pass by and catch some goodies. (MoonPies are the treat of choice, but more about that later.) And while New Orleans may appear to have a monopoly on the parades, bead throwing and wild antics, the celebration, in fact, started in Mobile in 1703. The festival continues to play an important role in the city’s cultural heritage and is just a whole lot of fun.
“But not in a girls gone wild kind of way,” explained Cartledge W. Blackwell, curator at the Mobile Carnival Museum. “It embraces all generations and is a family event.” Though Blackwell does acknowledge that alcohol is consumed in large amounts.
To understand the significance of Mardi Gras in Mobile, and grasp the scope of preparation required for this annual event, be sure to visit the museum. The artistry and customs surrounding the two-week festivities are fascinating and beautiful, especially the intricately designed trains worn by the kings and queens of the carnival.
“It’s all about the art,” said Homer McClure, one of the city’s dressmakers who creates these elaborate robes. “And it’s just magical to watch the parades,” continued McClure, explaining how each of the mystic societies build new floats each year. “Unlike New Orleans who use the same floats,” he added, unable to resist a dig.
So besides Mardi Gras, what else do these Gulf Coast cities have in common, you ask?
Love of good food is the answer.
Upon arrival in Mobile, I went out to grab some lunch at a food truck parked close to our hotel. Knowing that I’d be eating a lot of food in the next few days, I decided to order a salad. The ‘salad’ turned out to be taco shells with a pound of smoked brisket and maybe a half a dozen spinach leaves tossed in. Not quite the dish I had in mind, but it was absolutely delicious as was almost every bite I had in Mobile for the next few days. Here were the gastronomic highlights:
Famous for its coastal cuisine with a creole twist and scenic view of the Mobile River, Dauphin’s is an upscale dining experience that highlights the best the region has to offer. We feasted on classics like the West Indies salad, which consists of crabmeat soaked in oil and vinegar.
“It’s really simple, but it’s really good,” said Mobilian Tara Zieman. She was right.
“And you’re in Alabama, so you have to try the fried green tomatoes.”
So we did, and they were divine, served with Gulf shrimp in remoulade sauce. Also notable was the Mobile Bay stew (which blends together local meats and fresh seafood), pecan encrusted fish and the gumbo z’herb. Leslie’s Passion, a table-side flambé of berries and Grand Marnier was a flamboyant and sweet ending to a meal to remember.
Spot of Tea
With a name like this, you might imagine a tearoom with fancy china that serves crumpets, but this is far from the case. Spot of Tea is an institution in Mobile, and is known for its hearty breakfasts, award-winning soups and the best chicken salad in town. Their signature dish, Eggs Cathedral, is listed on the 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die. And it does indeed seem deadly with its crab cakes, topped with scrambled eggs, smothered in seafood sauce completely hiding the English muffin it all sits upon.
“Our most common comment from customers who order it is it was great, but now we need a nap!” said Chrissi Moore, general manager of the family-run restaurant.
Housed in an historic landmark building, the popular eatery has contributed to the revitalization of Mobile’s downtown core.
“We’ve grown with it, and they’ve grown with us,” said Moore, who takes pride in the role her family has played in the transformation.
The stretch of Lower Dauphin Street, where Spot of Tea is located, is now hip and happening, lined with cafés, shops and eateries, ideal for browsing and munching.
“It’s hard to come down this street and not eat,” said our guide on the Gulf Coast Ducks tour, and he started rhyming off his favourite haunts: Moe’s BBQ, roasted peanuts at A&M Peanut Company, MoonPie burgers at Roosters…
Hold on. What was that? Yes, I did say MoonPies.
In case you don’t know (and I certainly didn’t before my visit) MoonPies are a packaged dessert, consisting of marshmallows, wafers and chocolate (incidentally, they were packaged in Canada, Australia and the UK as Wagon Wheels).
MoonPies are a big deal here. Mobilians go through four million of them a year and are the official tester of this confection. Three million are thrown to revellers during Mardi Gras; and on New Year’s Eve, a giant MoonPie is lowered as part of the festivities.
To be honest, it’s not my favourite treat, but the next dessert the guide mentioned definitely caught my attention.
At Panini Pete’s, these classic French fritters are served with lemons to create a glaze; and according to many folks, they surpass those in New Orleans. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to try them on this trip, but it gives me a good reason to return to this Gulf city with its rich history, beautiful nature and quirky charm. And perhaps if I have a little extra time, I’ll squeeze in a visit to her cousin in Louisiana, too.
Where to Stay: Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel features an unbeatable downtown location, scenic views, comfortable beds and a wide rage of amenities, including free Wi-Fi, fitness center and an outdoor pool.
What to do: Be sure to take the time to visit the 5 Rivers Delta Center, which is located on the Mobile-Tensaw River delta, the second largest river delta system in the continental United States and less than a 10-minute drive from downtown. At the interpretive centre, you can see frogs, turtles and alligators, and learn about this impressive eco-system that’s been called the “Amazon of the US” because of the diversity of its wildlife. Even better is seeing it in the wild, which we did when kayaking the Bartram Canoe Trail. Great Blue Heron, jumping fish (which we found out are named mullets, like the bad hair cut) and alligators were just some of the creatures we spotted on this fascinating and fun excursion with Wild Native – 5 Rivers Delta Safaris.
Other worthwhile attractions include the Bellingrath Gardens and Homes, History Museum of Mobile and Mobile Museum of Art.
And more places to eat:
Nominated for a James Beard Award for best new restaurant, Southern National prides itself on the modern approach to classic Southern dishes and craft cocktails.
You know the minute that you walk into the Callaghan’s Irish Social Club that these walls have seen some good times. Its cheeseburgers are also on the infamous 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.
And finally, you can’t leave Mobile without a stop to the Wintzell’s Oyster House. Opened since 1932, they are famous for their oysters served “fried, stewed or nude,” and they also dish up regional favourites, like gumbo, crab cakes, craw fish, bread pudding and fried green tomatoes.