Mardi Gras in Cajun Country – Feb. 2008

Mardi Gras in Cajun Country
We sure have been lucky to have met some wonderful people and eaten some delicious food and listened to some foot-stompin’ music and joined in some crazy parties over the years, but rarely all at once. But these elements all came together in the small town of Oberlin, some 200 miles west of New Orleans, in the heart of Cajun Country in southwest Louisiana.

We were biking down a bumpy dirt road under construction, trying to reach the town of Mamou before it got dark, and it happened like this.

“Where are you going?” we heard a voice ask.
“To Mamou,” we say, as we spy two men pulling up beside us in their pick-up.
“Pack up your bikes and hop on in! We’ll get you there!” they answer.

Well, bouncing up and down on that uneven dirt road had been giving me a headache, and so I was more than happy to hop on in.

As it turns out, T-bird and Marvin weren’t going to Mamou. They were heading to an organizational meeting for Mardi Gras, which was only a few days away. We had stumbled by chance onto the Oberlin celebration, which is the oldest continuously held Mardi Gras event in the country. Thanks to T-bird and his daughters, Megane and Christine, and his brother-in-law, Lane, we experienced first-hand the traditional Mardi Gras and the Cajun way of life. It was one of our best stops ever, completely and totally unexpected.

Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday or Carnival) began as a pagan rite of spring and evolved into a Catholic pre-Lenten celebration involving seemingly unlimited drinking, dancing, eating, and merry-making. Cajun Louisiana is still predominantly Catholic and observes the Lent season with certain sacrifices, like no meat or no drinking. It is a 40-day period leading up to Good Friday and Easter. Traditionally, Catholics feasted the day before Ash Wednesday; hence, “Fat Tuesday” (“Mardi Gras” in French).

The tradition of “running” Mardi Gras (“courir de Mardi Gras”) was brought to Louisiana in the 18th century by Acadian and French settlers. Certain members of Cajun society used it to dress as the aristocracy in masked costume balls, and Creole communities later costumed and paraded to mock the aristocracy. Americans used it to satirize Creole pretensions, and began to institutionalize Carnival in the late 1880s by establishing “krewes,” or men-only social clubs. Krewe parades usually feature a dozen or more tractor-drawn floats and marching bands. Members riding on the floats throw the much-coveted beads, doubloons (old coins), and candy to the expectant crowd. Krewes select kings, queen, dukes, maids, and other royalty, who reign over the formal balls that are held during the Carnival season. Frivolity is the order of the day (or season!).

Mardi Gras is celebrated differently throughout the state and the region. Families and friends gather to picnic, barbecue, wear costumes, and listen to music, with the biggest festivities taking place in New Orleans. Fat Tuesday is a different animal in Cajun Country, which is where we were lucky enough to be during the festivities, thanks to T-bird and Marvin. Oberlin’s run is the state’s most traditional, and is still limited to male-only participants, the way all Mardi Gras runs used to be.

Those participating in the run ride through the countryside on horseback, identity hidden or blurred in masks and costumes. Led by an unmasked “capitaine,” wearing a cape, their procession snakes its way through the countryside and stops at about a half-dozen homes, bars, and stores that have agreed in advance to receive them. With the traditional “chanson de Mardi Gras” blaring from speakers, the men sing, dance, and “beg” (as the song goes) for the makings of a traditional chicken gumbo. Hosts typically respond to requests for “a little something” for the gumbo by offering a chicken. But don’t think that they just hand it over quietly; no, they make the “runners” work for their dinner! They toss the chicken into the air, and the costumed men are forced to chase the birds through muddy fields and drainage ditches!

Mardi Gras is not for sissies. There are 21 planned beer stops! The beer is handed out by boys aged 12 to 15, who ride on a wagon pulled by a tractor. Most of the men are well and truly drunk by the end of the morning, and some have even started the day drunk or hung over from the night before.

Frivolity and comic play are central features of the run. Participants clown around, try to ride wild horses, wrestle with the capitaine or each other, play with toys or whatever else they discover in the yards, or play jokes on each other. The capitaine and a few other men have whips and they whip those who are doing something they shouldn’t, like not dancing or not drinking or wrestling or horsing around. At the end of the day, the men often compare the marks left by their playful whippings. The deeper the mark, the more blood there is, the better it is!

Women and children are allowed to follow behind the procession in trucks or tractors. They may wear bead necklaces and the traditional green, gold, and purple, but they don’t dress in costume like the men do. We followed behind the procession with Christine and danced in the muddy fields along with the men when they alighted from their horses.

Once the procession has made its way through the countryside and arrived in town to parade through the streets, the community-wide gumbo (prepared by the women) is served at the dance hall. The tradition of preparing a community gumbo comes from times when food was scarce at the end of the winter and members of the community would come together to throw in various ingredients to make the soup. It was difficult for each family to have enough ingredients to make their own soup, but by coming together and each one contributing something, they would all have soup to eat. That tradition is continued today, when the Mardi Gras “runners” have to “work” for their supper by chasing the chickens offered by their hosts.

After the gumbo is a ball at the local dance hall, when men and women come together to dance to a live band. We joined in for the Cajun two-step and the waltz, which we had learned the day before at a dance hall in Mamou. It was obvious that in Oberlin and the surrounding rural areas, Mardi Gras meant music, and Fat Tuesday itself is one big “fais-do-do” (dance)!

Although Mardi Gras is technically just one day – the day before Ash Wednesday – preparations start long in advance. Women stitch baggy pants and matching, colorful fringed shirts for their husbands, sons, or brothers. They build tall, conelike hats called “capuchons” from cardboard and fabric. Men and women cut and decorate wire screen masks meant to blur the features. Mardi Gras meetings are held to train new members, plan routes and schedules, assign tasks to volunteers, and set the rules for the big day. The season is in full swing by the weekend before Mardi Gras, with plenty of partying, drinking, dancing, and merry-making for the entire community. The sound of the Mardi Gras song is everywhere, blaring from cars, radios and bandstands. Set to the stomping of horses’ hooves and translated from Cajun French, it goes like this:

The Mardi Gras come from all around, all around the center of town.
They come by once per year, asking for charity.
Sometimes it’s a sweet potato, a sweet potato or pork rinds.

The Mardi Gras are on a great journey, all around the center of town.
They come by once per year, asking for charity.
Sometimes it’s a skinny chicken, or three or four corn cobs.

Captain, captain, wave your flag, let’s go to another neighbor’s.
Asking for charity for everyone who’ll come join us later,
Everyone who’ll come join us later at the gumbo tonight!

When T-bird and Marvin picked us up that Saturday afternoon near Mamou, they had been headed to the local “Mardi Gras meeting.” They had warned us that there’d be only men at the meeting, and I was a little bit surprised to see that it was literally true (it still being the most traditional run in the state). By the time we got there in the late afternoon, most of them were either already drunk or well on their way!

The Capitaine strained to make himself heard over the noise of the men and the Mardi Gras music. He went over the schedule and the list of rules, which was growing longer due to the dangerous antics of some rowdy local cowboys. Men were also busy making whips (!), which went to only the Capitaine and a few select men, who were in charge of making sure that everyone behaved themselves.

At the Mardi Gras meeting, we had our first gumbo, and a homemade one at that! The Cajuns are widely known for their fabulous cuisine: jambalaya, boudin (pork and rice sausages), shrimp and crawfish etouffee, seafood bisque, raw and live oysters, and crawfish boils. But the gumbo is like the “national dish” of the Cajuns. It is a soup based on okra and roue and which, like the Cajuns themselves, is a mélange of many different ingredients.

After the Mardi Gras meeting, T-bird drove us to a neighborhood party, which was at the house of Megane’s teacher and school principal. There was a bonfire (can you imagine an outdoor party at the beginning of February!) and an amazing variety of fresh food, from which I took a sample each of catfish courtbouillon (amazing!), homemade boudin and sausage, and raw and grilled oysters (there were 25 dozen!). I was in heaven! We would find out later on that it was like this in Cajun country…an emphasis was given to the food, and this is why it is world-famous! At home, we would have expected pizza or subs or wings at a party…not homecooked fish and seafood and sausage made from wild hogs that were hunted in the nearby woods! This was definitely the Louisiana I had hoped for!

We spent five days with T-bird’s family, his brother-in-law Lane, and Lane’s mother, Betty. What a wonderful time! The girls were a joy to be around, and Lane was the perfect tour guide, driving us from one place to another in his pick-up as we listened to zydeco and Cajun music, and of course, the ubiquitous Mardi Gras song.

He pointed out different places of interest and explained the history and culture of the region, the geography, the crops and food, the character of the people, and Mardi Gras. He drove us to hear live bands play zydeco music, and even translated it for us. And he kept saying that he couldn’t wait for Mardi Gras to be over so he wouldn’t have to drink anymore! Sure, Lane!

There was a crawfish boil at another neighbor’s on Sunday before the Super Bowl. People ate from huge platters of crawfish seasoned in Creole spices. Megane showed me how it was done. And, on Monday, the folks from Oberlin and neighboring Kinder went to the larger (but still small) town of Mamou to party. Located in the heart of Cajun Country, it is the self-proclaimed “Cajun Music Capital of the World.” It celebrates Mardi Gras in a big way, and visitors come from all over the country, and even all over the world, to celebrate along with the locals. There are live bands, beads, dancing, jambalaya, and BBQ.

We started the morning at Fred’s Lounge, a world-renowned bar and dance hall that features live Cajun music and country waltzes every Saturday morning. It was in full swing this Monday morning, with revelers decked out in hats and beads and the Mardi Gras colors. As we walked into the bar, I was pulled away from Stephane and Lane by a woman whom I had previously met in Oberlin.

“Do you drink?” she asked. “Occasionally,” I said. That was all it took. She dragged me by the hand into the bar’s restroom, locked the door, and pulled out a bottle of cinnamon schnapps from behind the garbage can! She gave me a swig, took one herself, and then we were out on the dance floor, with her swinging me around in the Cajun 2-step! Mardi Gras was in full swing!

Mardi Gras in Oberlin was one of the best times of my life. It was all because of T-bird and his family, Megane, Christine, and Lane, who welcomed us with open arms and showed us a real Cajun celebration. Vive le Mardi Gras!