Growing up in the Greater New Orleans Area, I thought knew everything there was to know about Louisiana Mardi Gras.
I was wrong.
I grew up with the big, spectacular floats and bejeweled kings and queens of New Orleans Carnival. About 150 miles away from the hustle and bustle of the Crescent City’s biggest party of the year, there is another indigenous Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana’s Cajun country.
This was my first year experiencing the country cousin of my usual Mardi Pardi. My friend Jake and I weaved through country roads following my cousin Laura Gerdes Colligan and her Cajun husband Lucas Colligan — he grew up in Church Point, La., where we were headed to see the Courir de Mardi Gras. His family property hosts the last stop on the Church Point parade route, a coveted position.
When we arrived at the family estate, it was a different setting from where I usually catch parades in New Orleans. Instead of iron balconies and formidable crowds, space outnumbered people. The property was a few football fields in length. The houses were far apart and faced the road, sharing acres of land for a backyard.
When we got out the cars, we noticed license plates from across the country: Oregon, Iowa, Nevada and more were spotted, all present to observe this venerable Cajun celebration. Lucas explained that we were parked outside his aunt’s house (the parade crossed on the road in front of her home), and the houses facing the perpendicular street off the shared field all belonged to kin, other aunts and uncles, his own childhood home and the site of his great-grandfather’s dairy and house.
“And, across the street is all cousins,” he said with a smile.
When we entered the house, it was a pretty typical Mardi Gras scene. A clock ticked on the wall that had fives in place of every number. And, though there were more than one hundred people, there was no way we could finish all the food. A huge pot of chicken and sausage gumbo simmered on the stove, which several people assured me was cooked by cousin Paul, the best cook in the state of Louisiana. I have to say that was some damn good gumbo. There was jambalaya, king cake, pralines and, of course, being in Cajun country, boudin — a spicy meat and rice stuffed sausage casing.
A Cajun band played (yes, there was a washboard) on the covered patio. People danced to songs that caught their attention or quietly listened in lawn chairs. A “Cajun microwave,” or enclosed wooden pit, cooked a whole pig inside, a cochon de lait. Guests began to arrive in the traditional Cajun Carnival costumes, especially children.
These fringed fabric outfits stem from medieval satirical dress, similar in appearance to a court jester’s garb. Since Carnival is historically a time to enjoy life before Lenten penitence, the costumes are a way to make fun of life’s hierarchies. The hats, or capuchons, still worn today at Cajun Mardi Gras reflect these feudal origins: conical hats (capuchons in French) mock nobility, Bishop’s miters represent the papal state and four corner hats symbolize academics. Similar to New Orleans, parade members wear masks to hide one’s identity and let loose before Lent.
Carnival is a day to turn society on its head and revel in the roles you don’t live on a daily basis. The costumes I saw still reflect these origins, but with a contemporary twist. Some of the fabrics were modern in print, with men in NFL Saints patterns and children’s donning their favorite cartoon characters. One little girl wore a Dora the Explorer emblazoned piece.
The tradition of the Cajun Courir de Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday run, was brought with Cajuns from rural France to Acadie (modern Canada) to Louisiana where it evolved into a quest for Gumbo. Men on horseback would travel from house to house throughout a Cajun town, begging for ingredients for a communal gumbo — offerings could be anything from onions to a live chicken.
Today, the gumbo is made before and during the run, not after, and modern stops only collect one item: the chicken.
Every house on the route has a few live chickens or guinea hens ready in a cage to throw for the riders to race and catch — and the competition is fierce.
Lucas explained that men ages 15 and up ride in something called the chicken wagon, or large trailers, and go with the men on horseback from house to house competing to catch the most chickens. The winner gets a trophy at the end of the race. Some families passionately defend this title, their surname synonymous with chicken getting. Lucas said he rode on the wagon in his teens and early 20s.
“I did it every year. It’s a right of passage,” he said, adding that in his tenure he caught about three chickens. Lucas noted that one house varies from the modern chicken tradition, with a race to capture a greased pig.
After the men on horseback dance as an offering for the house and the chickens are caught, they perform a few more stunts and ride on with a parade following. At Lucas’s family compound, the riders and chicken wagon linger here longer than other houses on the route as his is the last stop. And the action is everywhere. The field was inundated with dozens of horses as spectators mingled among them freely. Riders stood on their mounts before swiftly riding off the property as a daunting group.
The parade that soon followed was different from what you see in New Orleans, though it was just as much fun.
Parade members don’t wear intricate gowns or uniform silk jumpsuits like krewes, parade groups, in the Big Easy. Instead they don themed t-shirts or homemade costumes. The parade was pulled by trucks instead large tractors and floats are adorned with handmade decorations. The overall schedule is pastoral and relaxed.
There are fewer restrictions than at New Orleans parades too, riders can leave their floats and visit with the crowd and coveted parade throws — in addition to beads — are jell-o shots.
After 100 truck floats passed, our necks heavy with beads, Laura, Jake and I sat on the patio with our chairs facing the open field, blue skies and 70-degree weather. There was no rush to get across town or leave the house.
I think I could get used to Cajun Mardi Gras.