How the Zulu coconut was saved from extinction
To the Mardi Gras faithful, it seemed like the world had gone nuts — or, more accurately, coconuts. Lawsuits over alleged injuries from Zulu coconuts thrown during the krewe’s annual parade, arguably the most treasured of all Carnival catches, sent insurance rates skyrocketing. That forced the krewe to do the unthinkable in 1985: It banned the beloved, hand-decorated throws all together. That’s where the city and state’s political leaders stepped in. With the backing of New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy and Gov. Edwin Edwards, the state Legislature in its 1987 session enacted SB188, which became known as “the Coconut Bill.” It added Zulu coconuts to a list of items (such as beads, doubloons and cups) protected from personal injury lawsuits. A Mardi Gras tradition was saved.
Since it was first introduced, believed to be in the 1910s, the Zulu coconut has become among the most cherished catches of Carnival, although it has evolved over time. The first coconuts — purchased by riders at the French Market in lieu of more expensive beads — were handed out raw and “hairy.” But they can weigh as much as a pound and a half, causing obvious problems for spectators. Today’s Zulu coconuts are shaved down and drained of their milk and meat, making them much more lightweight than their predecessors, in the 2- to 6-ounce range. Additionally, krewe rules state they are to be handed down to parade-goers — not thrown — and only from riders on the bottom decks of floats.
- When the Coconut Law was signed into law, Barthelemy and Edwards helped mark the occasion, joining krewe members in a celebratory second-line in July 1987. “It’s a great day,” Barthelemy said as the procession rolled under the North Claiborne overpass.
- The Coconut Law doesn’t give Zulu rides a free pass to hurl coconuts indiscriminately. If they exhibit “gross negligence” — which includes throwing a coconut overhand — the krewe can be held liable, and it has been since the enacting of the law.
- Zulu coconuts were the first specialty, krewe-specific throw of Carnival. The second wouldn’t come for decades, when Rex introduced the doubloon in 1960. Nowadays, every Carnival krewe has its own specialty throws, from cups to doubloons to various trinkets, plushes and light-ups.
- Zulu coconuts often earn a special place in the homes and offices of those lucky enough to get them. That includes President Barak Obama, who in 2009 received a specially designed coconut from the president of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club during a 10-minute Oval Office meeting. The prize, perched on a crystal stand, reportedly earned a spot in the president’s private office.
- Although the krewe dates it to the 1910s, the exact year the Zulu coconut was introduced is a bit murky. By 1928, it had become a thing, however, earning what is believed to be its first mention in The Times-Picayune, in a story noting the parade’s passing of City Hall, “where His Majesty of the Zulus tossed an imperial cocoanut to (Mayor) Jimmy Walker.”
- For the first time, the Zulu organization in 2015 debuted “official” krewe-issued coconuts, dipped in black or silver paint and marked with a “Z” brand before being sold to krewe members to decorate.
- In 2013, the Baker Maid wholesale bakery introduced an official Zulu Coconut King Cake, iced in the krewe’s colors of black and gold, and filled with coconut cream.
- Zulu’s contribution to New Orleans’ Carnival goes beyond the introduction of the hand-crafted signature throw. In 1949, it named Louis Armstrong its king — a full two decades before the Krewe of Bacchus made a tradition out of honoring celebrity monarchs.
- In recent years, other parading krewes have taken inspiration from Zulu and have started handing out their own hand-crafted specialty throws. The all-female Krewe of Muses’ glitter-bedecked shoes are probably among the most popular. In addition, the Krewe of Nyx features decorated handbags, the Krewe of Iris hands out sunglasses, the Krewe of Carrollton does miniature shrimp boots, and the scatologically obsessed Krewe of Tucks hands out decorated toilet brushes.
There are some things simply belong together: Red beans and rice. Black and gold. K&B. And, of course, the Krewe of Zulu and its trademark coconuts. In each case, it’s theoretically possible for one to exist without the other, but New Orleans wouldn’t be the same New Orleans if they did. Politicians are often the recipients of our collective ire, but in this case, we’re lucky the state Legislature recognized that some things are more than the sum of their parts and stepped in to preserve a cherished tradition. After all: Zulu without coconuts? Now, that’s just nuts.