My brother Larry, who moved to New Orleans in 2014 and is experiencing his first Carnival season, had a question for me last week. "What's the deal with Zulu coconuts?" he asked.
"They're the best throw of all, the thing everyone wants the most," I said.
I realized later that I had explained nothing. But how can you explain the allure of a Zulu coconut? Is it because it's the signature throw of the krewe that once had Louis Armstrong serve as King Zulu? Is it because, like snowflakes, no two Zulu coconuts are the same? Is it because they're not that easy to come by? Or is it just that they are intrinsically the coolest throw ever?
The first time I ever heard of them was in 1970, shortly after Stroup and I moved to Louisiana. I was reading everything I could about our new home and came upon "American Grotesque: An Account of the Clay Shaw-Jim Garrison Affair in the City of New Orleans," by James Kirkwood.
While Kirkwood was in New Orleans covering the Clay Shaw trial that followed JFK's assassination, Judge Edward Haggarty took him aside one day and told him he had something for him, but he couldn't tell the local press about it. He went to Haggarty's office expecting a scoop, but the Mardi Gras-loving judge gave him something much more valuable: a Rex doubloon and a Zulu coconut.
Sadly, I don't think Kirkwood appreciated the value of his gifts.
I've never actually caught a Zulu coconut at the corner of Jackson Avenue and St. Charles Avenue, my favorite place to watch the parade on Mardi Gras morning, but my friend Vergel Duplessis took care of me until he died in 2013 at 83.
I met Vergel, called "Bowee" by his family, when he was a courier for The Times-Picayune, and I told him how much I longed for a Zulu coconut. He wasn't in Zulu, but he had a supplier, and he began to show up at the office every year with a gift bag containing a new Zulu coconut and a variety of that year's beads.
After Kiernan, our first grandson, was born in December 1996, Vergel started giving me two coconuts every Carnival season. "One for your grandson," he'd say. And then when Grace was born, he started giving me three.
Eventually, when he realized the parade of Stroup grandchildren was not about to slow down, he reverted to one coconut every year, and I displayed them proudly on my desk.
In 1998, when Vergel's beloved wife Valerie asked him to remove his extensive collection of coconuts from their house, he gave away all but one, and put the special one in a shed in their back yard. The special one said "RIP Jim" on the side and had been decorated in honor of James Russell, the spiritual leader of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, who had died at 80 in October 1997.
Now Zulu coconuts are hollowed-out, but back then they weren't, and one day when Vergel went out to the shed he was amazed to see that his coconut had a tiny green sprout poking out of one end.
"When I saw the sprout, I thought Big Jim would rest in peace, and the coconut would still go on, like a little tribute to him," Vergel said.
Because it was so special, Valerie let him display it on a shelf in the living room, but by the time I got over to their house to see it, that sprout looked like a little old shriveled cigar butt.
"Now I'm afraid it's 'Rest in Peace' for this, too," Vergel said, sadly. "I don't think even Miracle-Gro is going to help."
During Carnival season in 1999, I called Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service horticulturist and Times-Picayune gardening columnist Dan Gill to tell him about Vergel's sprouting coconut, and he explained that a coconut is a great big seed, and Vergel's shed had served as a greenhouse. At first the sprout got what it needed to grow, but once the milk was gone, he needed to plant it in potting soil, give it occasional drinks of water, put it in a sunny window, and watch it turn into a little palm tree.
After I wrote about the care and feeding of sprouting coconuts, someone called to tell me if I wanted to know the true story of Zulu coconuts, I should talk to Walter "Indian Chief" Vance, that he was the guy who had dreamed up the painted, glitter-covered treasures.
So I went to visit Vance at his home on First Street, and he filled me in:
He didn't remember what year he joined the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, but there were only 30 members and the dues were $1 a month. They had three floats, and they handed out regular coconuts. People would take them home, crack them open and eat them, or use them to make coconut pies and coconut cakes. Zulu warriors found sustenance in them, too.
"We took the water out and mixed it with rum and vodka," Vance said. "Now, that was good."
Vance, a painter by trade, thought about painting the coconuts and turning them into festive throws in the early '50s, but he had to figure out how to get rid of the hair first. He tried burning it off, but that was a smelly disaster. Then he hooked up a wire brush to an electric motor and sanded it off, the method he was still using almost 50 years later.
In the beginning the coconuts were painted either silver and black or gold and black.
"Silver was for the public and gold was for people who helped us pay for the floats," he said.
Over the years, more and more krewe members started painting them, and they got fancier and fancier, until everyone was handing out beautiful glitter-covered coconuts.
But Vance's were always the most special. He showed me a newspaper clipping of him presenting Mayor Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial with the first Zulu coconut he ever created that had real false teeth. And he had given Morial's son Mayor Marc Morial one that was even better.
"I made him one with real false teeth, and it plays music, too," Vance said.
I was glad I had the chance to tell his story. Just two weeks later, he died suddenly at 76. The day we met, he gave me a special bank he had created. It says "King Zulu 1999," and it is King Zulu holding a baby. It is actually two coconuts with a slit in the front for the money. It's my favorite Zulu memento. It has sat on my dresser for 16 years.
You can actually buy Zulu coconuts on eBay now. Some are described as "awesome," some as "vintage," some as "rare." But buying one just seems so wrong to me, like wearing Carnival beads after Fat Tuesday.
I know one thing for sure. I might give one of my Zulu coconuts to Larry, but none of them will ever be for sale. The only way to describe mine is "priceless."Contact Sheila Stroup at firstname.lastname@example.org.