LAKE WALES – For one day, Lorraine Hazellief is ready to dish up a taste of classic New Orleans cooking at her restaurant, Lorraine’s Place, in downtown Lake Wales.
“Inside the restaurant, we’re doing a half Cuban sandwich and Jambalaya,” Hazellief said of the meals that are a staple of N’Awlins cuisine.
Outside in the parking lot, within view of pedestrians walking past the restaurant at the corner of Central Avenue and 1st Street, was a table covered with chopped onions, sweet relish, ketchup and mustard, for those who wanted some else: smoked sausage.
It was, Hazellief said, her restaurant’s nod to a decades-long Lake Wales tradition, Mardi Gras, and the crowds that pack into downtown to enjoy the live music, vendors with food and New Orleans-style crafts and gift items, and, of course, that big Mardi Gras parade.
For a business owner in the downtown, Madri Gras, Hazellief said, is a goldmine.
“This is my third year doing it, and it’s been pretty good so far today,” she said. “It gets a lot crazier in the evening.”
Morning, afternoon, or night, she added, the Lake Wales Madri Gras brings out the crowds in big numbers for downtown.
“This is our busiest day,” she said.
That reputation alone brought Mark and Marie Metz to downtown, to set up a booth where they could sell their special product: banana bread, and lots of it. Their business, Banana Bread Heaven, strives to be diverse.
“We’ve got 12 different flavors of banana bread,” Mark Metz said. “We’ve got 120 banana breads here. It took us the better part of a week to bake them.”
A regular at the Lake Wales Farmers Market, Mark Metz said his fellow merchants advised him to get a booth at Mardi Gras, or risk missing out on those big crowds.
“This is our first year,” he said. “We come to the Lake Wales Farmers Market all the time, and everybody told us to go to Mardi Gras.”
Along Market Street, the vendors set up their booths early, offering everything from Mardi Gras t-shirts, feather hair clips and puppets to key chains and custom poker chips. With live performances starting at 11 a.m. and with the parade within hours of kicking off, the crowds were already drawn to downtown by late morning, in anticipation of a day of fun.
“This is a family fun Mardi Gras,” said Pat Hays, one of the organizers of the event. “This is just fun and frivolity.”
It’s not at all intended, she added, to be on the same grand scale as what tourists might expect in New Orleans – or even what they might see up the road at Universal Studios. But that’s fine, Hays said, adding that smaller is perfect for Lake Wales.
“We’re not looking for the big time,” she said. “We have no ambitions to be big time.”
What she preferred was people relaxing at a picnic table in front of the downtown stage to watch a performance by Debbie and Jon Corneal, the Nashville performers who were on hand to sing country classics like Buck Owens’ “Together Again” for the crowds.
“We’re going to do a little duet,” Jon Corneal said. “Originally it was a Buck Owen song, but he didn’t do it as a duet. But Debbie and I are going to do it this way.”
In the audience, Gordon and Jane McGinnis, snowbirds who live in Cape Cod, Massachusetts but spend the winters in Polk County, said they love an opportunity to see the Jon and Debbie Corneal Show – a duo they originally discovered decades ago during a performance at the former Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven, a property that’s now Legoland Florida.
“We’ve been following them for 25 years,” Gordon McGinnis said. “Jon started out years and years ago in Nashville. We must have first heard them 25 years ago in Cypress Gardens. The only time we hear them now is at Mardi Gras here in Lake Wales. We follow them.”
That’s exactly what Hays said the town is looking for – entertainment for the entire family.
“This is family friendly and we intend it to stay that way,” she said.
The Lake Wales Mardi Gras and parade actually started out decades ago as a tribute to the late Vinton B. Davis, the owner of a popular local restaurant, Vinton’s New Orleans Restaurant.
“It’s a five star restaurant,” Hays said.
When Davis died, he has a special wish, said Faye Greenfield, one of the organizers of the day-long celebration.
“When he passed away, he wanted a Mardi Gras-style funeral,” she said.
“We decided we would honor him with a small parade that went around the block, and it just took off from there,” Hays said.
Over the years, the celebration has gotten bigger, and then sometimes smaller, and then sometimes bigger again, Greenfield said. But every February, it comes back as a cherished community tradition.
“It’s been 28 years now that we’ve been doing this,” she said. “We’re the old guard.”
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