In a former day care center just off Earhart Boulevard in Hollygrove, Sarah Barrow is happily watching paint dry. Her neighbor has built her a custom table with holes in the top to prevent her coconuts from rolling around or hitting the floor, and Barrow can’t wait for him to build her three more tables so she can paint about 250 coconuts at the same time.
“They call me the Coconut Lady,” she says with pride. ” It’s going on nine years now. I started off doing 500 coconuts for my cousin. He said, ‘Hey, I’m going to pay you to do my coconuts this year. I don’t want to do it anymore.’ And I was like, ‘Ok.’ And then his friends were like, ‘I don’t want to do them too. I’ll pay.’ So that’s how I started, and now I’m up to about 4,000-6,000 coconuts a year.”
Barrow usually starts painting sometime during the month of October, or as soon as the shipment of coconuts arrives by boat from Asia. The nuts come pre-painted in gold, black or silver, the traditional colors. Barrow might do special colors for krewe parties or sponsors, but not for the big parade on Mardi Gras Day.
“You might think this is repetitive work, but it’s therapy for me,” she says. “I just wish I could do this all year round!”
The decorating can get stressful, however.
“I was painting coconuts until 1:30 in the morning on Mardi Gras Day last year,” she remembers. “‘Oh, I’ll have time to take a nap.’ Nope! I never got to sleep. I delivered the coconuts, and then I got dressed to get on a float to roll wiht Zulu at 6 a.m. in the morning.”
Barrow doesn’t seem to mind missing out on sleep in general. She’s a kindergarten teacher at KIPP Leadership Academy by day, Coconut Lady by night.
“I paint from 5:30 p.m. or whenever I get home from work to midnight every day,” she says. “On weekends, it’s pretty much all day. I definitely get [my painting time] in.”
Barrow does all of the art work herself. She does have friends come in and help her add glitter and fill in her lines, but she has “to touch each and every coconut.”
The history of the Zulu coconut goes back to the beginnings of the club itself, around 1910. At that time, members bought sacks of coconuts at the French Market to use as throws in their parade. Those coconuts were supposedly not decorated at all, but thrown or handed out in their natural state.
Lester Pollard, long-time Zulu member and Chairman of the Zulu Lundi Gras Festival first rode with Zulu in 1980, the year after the 1979 police strike. He remembers that most of the coconuts at that time started out as raw coconuts from Bubba’s Produce Company in the Marigny.
“They were the hairy coconuts,” Pollard remembers. “Raw off the tree, with all the stuff and fuzz on them. And they were heavy! Some members drained them and some didn’t, but they were all very heavy. Some people were still throwing the raw, hairy coconuts too.”
The heft and popularity of the throw—as Pollard notes, the hard football shape is “bound to bounce off a few heads” along the route—caused injuries, and lawsuits (“some frivolous, some with merit,” says Pollard) followed. This all got serious enough that in 1987, the Zulus were unable to get insurance for their parade on Mardi Gras Day. But they paraded anyway—without coconuts.
Pollard remembers the reaction of the crowd when some received painted walnuts, and other throws.
“People just didn’t know, and they didn’t understand about our insurance problems,” he explains. “They just kept calling for coconuts. Everyone wanted a coconut.”
The insurance problems were eventually overcome with the passage of the so-called Coconut Bill, under then-governor Edwin Edwards. Pollard remembers Edwards showing up for the club’s second line to celebrate the return of the coconuts later that year.
“Everyone just loves a coconut! I mean, as a kid, I remember going to the Zulu parade with my daddy in the ’50s, and when you got a coconut, that was like the most incredible thing. My first ride [with Zulu] was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life. My first parade, I had five sacks with about 50 coconuts in each, but since everybody wanted a coconut, I ran out before I knew it. I quickly got to 10 sacks. It’s gotten to be now that we have a lot more coconuts.”
Part of the reason coconuts have become more prevalent in later years is that the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club started importing prepared coconuts (“lighter and safer,” says Pollard) by the thousands from Vietnam. Those coconuts have already been sanded, drained, dried and painted. The coconuts are then sold to individual members who either decorate their own, or hire someone to do so.
Pollard and Barrow both estimate that each of the club’s 1,800 riders brings about five sacks of 50 coconuts on Mardi Gras Day. That’s about 450,000 coconuts on the floats, and each member is responsible for his/her own.
Pollard remembers what a hard job it was to prepare the natural coconuts for the parade:
“When we did them, we sanded them and drained them by making a hole in the little face that’s naturally on the coconut, the two eyes and the mouth. That took a long time. We worked during the week and then we spent most of our weekends sanding and draining those coconuts.”
Professing a lack of artistic talent, Pollard has hired artists to decorate his coconuts for him. One artist eventually relocated to Denver in the ’90s, and for a while Polllard tried to keep the relationship going.
“But the coconuts started cracking,” Pollard remembers. “It might have been a combination of the altitude and the dryness up there, but he could hear them popping in his basement. At that point, we couldn’t continue.”
Pollard is currently working with artists who live in Atlanta to decorate coconuts for the annual Zulu Lundi Gras Festival, a free festival to be held on Monday, February 16 from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in Woldenberg Park along the Mississippi River. This year, the festival will feature music by Rebirth Brass Band, Amanda Shaw, Big Al Carson, Original Pinettes Brass Band, Dwayne Dopsie, Kermit Ruffins and more.
For Lundi Gras as well as for Mardi Gras, Pollard prefers coconuts painted in gold in honor of the throw’s historical nickname, the “golden nugget.”
Barrow doesn’t seem to be getting tired of gold either. This year, she’s painting 300 coconuts for the Zulu King—all gold, with a picture of a roaring lion in a yellow crown. She doesn’t mind repeating the same design over and over.
“Once I get the mojo going, it’s pretty much automatic,” she says.