I've been to New Orleans's Mardi Gras as an adult, and have had more than my fair share of fun. (I've always gone home with lots of bags—some full of beads, others under my eyes.) But for years I extolled the virtues of Mobile's Mardi Gras, maintaining that it was smaller, cleaner, safer, and more family-friendly. Finally, in the spring of 1999, I decided to revisit the Mardi Gras of my youth to see how accurate my memories were. On my list: lots of parades, dancing, and drinking, and lots of good food. When it comes to cuisine, Mobile falls within Louisiana's sphere of influence—gumbo and étouffée appear on many menus—but it belongs to the Deep South, too, serving up fare like grits, fried green tomatoes, and fried chicken, and it is famous for its quail, shrimp, fish, and crab. As for the balls and parties, though several are now open to all, I wanted to explore the world of Mobile's exclusive secret societies, the ones you practically had to be born into. My key to that small, close-knit kingdom was Ann Doody Webb, a good friend and third-generation Mobilian, who got me invited to a slew of society affairs. I was set.