By Micaela Wendell
Mardi Gras might inspire visions of wrought iron balconies, lightning bugs on the bayou and Bourbon Street packed with partiers.
The core of Mardi Gras — community celebration, Louisiana-inspired food and welcoming Southern charm — is recreated each year at Columbia’s Mardi Gras festival founded by the Krewe de Columbi-Ya-Ya. But what is not recreated is the infamous idea of crazy partiers in the streets earning strings of beads.
“People know that’s not what you do in Columbia,” Kenneth Kelly, “Big Chief” of Krewe de Columbi-Ya-Ya, said. “Bourbon Street, particularly, has a different kind of licentiousness to it that you don’t see elsewhere.”
Kelly, the chairman of the University of South Carolina’s anthropology department, says that traditional Mardi Gras in Louisiana consists of neighborhood celebrations and local parades that usually depict, at worst, social satire or innuendo.
“It tends to be a very family-friendly kind of thing,” he said. “And that’s what we do here. From the beginning, we’ve encouraged people to bring their kids, bring their dogs.”
Just like any true krewe — a social club that walks in parades and keeps the Mardi Gras spirit alive — Columbi-Ya-Ya has crowned its royalty for the 2017 season. Kristian Niemi, owner of Cajun-creole restaurant Bourbon on Main Street, is the 2017 Mardi Gras king, and state Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Richland, is queen. Both are set to assume their regal roles on a float in Saturday’s parade that begins at the Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport off Jim Hamilton Boulevard and ends at City Roots, the urban farm that will host the Mardi Gras celebration.
“It’s probably the most eclectic, fun, goofy parade in the city that I think really shows the spirit of Columbia — the best, in all of its quirkiness,” Niemi said.
Niemi is one of the founders of Krewe de Columbi-Ya-Ya, along with “fearless leader” and attorney Tom Hall, Soda City Market founder Emile DeFelice and Eric McClam from City Roots.
Niemi’s interest in the culinary arts started in his small hometown of Chisholm, Minnesota, where he admired his family’s cooking style. His own love for cooking blossomed when he bought a cookbook on a whim when he attended College of Charleston.
He later attended culinary school in Minnesota, then moved back to South Carolina, where he managed Blue Marlin in 1995 and worked in several other restaurants.
“It’s been what I do until I figure out what I want to do when I grow up,” he said.
McLeod was surprised when her campaign staff told her she had been selected as Mardi Gras queen, but she said she is excited for a change in pace from her usual legislative duties.
“I thought it was going to be great! It’s going to be fun,” she said. “And my campaign was just like, ‘Oh, this is awesome!’ We needed a little reprieve from the campaign and from the rigorous, competitive and sometimes nasty campaign that we had.”
The Columbia Mardi Gras tradition was forged in the wake of a 2011 fire. Wil-Moore Farms in Lugoff, owned by Keith Willoughby, lost a chicken barn to a fire from a faulty heater. The newly founded Krewe de Columbi-Ya-Ya, whose members were friends of Willoughby, decided to raise money to offset Willoughby’s losses.
After only three weeks of organization, the krewe pulled off its first Mardi Gras and donated several thousand dollars to Wil-Moore Farms.
This year, proceeds are going to the Congaree Riverkeeper. As part of Krewe de Columbi-Ya-Ya’s many year-round festivities to keep the “party spirit” alive, members have taken tubing trips down the Congaree River.
“We’ve got this great resource of these rivers running right through the town,” Kelly said. “You can tube on them, you can fish in them, you can swim in them, do all that kind of stuff, yet here in Columbia, there’s a lot of pollution that ends up in those rivers, and that’s something we shouldn’t be doing. We should be fighting against that.”
Mardi Gras is more than a holiday — it’s a season. Twelve days after Christmas, on Epiphany, the countdown begins. The actual date of Mardi Gras differs each year because it follows the Christian lunar calendar. The holiday always falls the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian contemplative season of Lent, and is sometimes known as “Fat Tuesday.”
The “fat” of Fat Tuesday comes from the historical tradition of fasting during Lent, the 40 day-period before Easter. People would spend Mardi Gras day eating up all their excess pleasurable food, such as eggs and fat, before starting their spartan Lenten diets the next day.
Columbia’s Mardi Gras is free to the public, although there will be Louisiana-style food and beer and soft drinks for sale. Kelly said the decision to remove the entrance fee was to ensure the festival was accessible to more people.
“We’re trying to give to the community, bring people out together and minimize the barriers,” he said.
Despite the presence of adult beverages, Columbia Mardi Gras has not had issues with overindulgent revelers trying to bring the Bourbon Street spirit to the capital city.
If there would be any commotion happening at the festival, it would be from the bands playing on five different stages at the venue, with one stage hosting kid-led bands from Freeway Music.
“It works. In all its mad-cat glory, it works,” Niemi said.
The Columbia Mardi Gras festivities open Saturday with the Lagniappe 5K at 8 a.m., followed by the parade at 11 a.m. The festival at City Roots will roll, ya-ya-y’all style, until sundown.