What do most of us think of when it comes to Mardi Gras…New Orleans, beautiful floats, beads, “throw me something, Mista,” parades, Rio de Janeiro, Carnival, more parades, incredible floats and costumes, music, trinkets. We definitely don’t think about masked horsemen who galavant all over the countryside chasing chickens! It’s just the most difficult thing to imagine. Photography aches from over saturation most of the time. No wonder it’s a treat to peruse the great photo stories in National Geographic, even today. We still witness for the first time something about a culture in deepest Africa, China, Indonesia, etc we never knew about. It’s fresh and speaks out to you. Well…the traditional Mardi Gras in small towns dotting the map of southwest Louisiana is a lot like a fresh, uncovered story. Take the town of Mamou, Louisiana.
The Mardi Gras “Courir” (RUN) in this predominantly catholic town some 40 miles northwest of Lafayette, totally closes the town of normal everyday business on Monday and the following day Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras).
The tradition began in the late 1700s when French Canadians moved into southwest Louisiana from parts of Nova Scotia in Canada. When Mardi Gras began to be celebrated, the men wore costumes that would make fun of political figures, the clergy and what was called the intellects. Masks were also worn to protect their identity and remain anonymous. Mardi Gras became a day where townsmen could act like crazy and get away with it. When I say townsmen, I mean all the local adults and even some of the older teenage boys would saddle up their horses and ride or “RUN” along the countryside of Mamou where mostly farmers lived, begging for food for a large community gumbo that would be cooked at the end of the day (by the women) in the middle of town.
To help the elder men get extra endurance for such a long day of revelry, large amounts of alcohol and beer were consumed. The alcohol did attract some men who normally would not participate.
As the men would scavenge their way along the farming community, the “captainnes” (older men who would wear purple and gold capes) would initiate a greeting with the farmers and ask for a gift for the men of the town. Traditionally, the gift of choice was a single live chicken per farm. The chicken was then released in the air (chickens can fly for a short distance). The horsemen would then become runners and chase the chicken. Once caught, the bird was given to one of the half dozen or so “captainnes” for safe keeping. The runner/horsemen with the most chickens caught at the end of Fat Tuesday was usually presented with a few months supply of feed, dry goods, groceries from the local hardware/grocery store. Before departing for the next farm, the revelers would show their appreciation to the farmers gift by dancing in the streets and singing Cajun country tunes.
Meanwhile, back in the center of town, the townswomen were preparing the kitchen for a huge gumbo that would be cooked in the evening with all the chickens caught by the men. The Chicken Gumbo became a tradition that lives to this day. Creole and Zydeco Bands also provide entertainment in town for all visitors/tourists who enjoy the festivities in Mamou. It wasn’t long before a resident would approach the stranger in town and let them know they were in “Coon-Ass Country.” It’s not as nasty as it sounds, it’s rather a term of endearment and pride. It’s solidified the cajun culture over the centuries and the food, music and way of life is known around the world.
By mid point (noon-1PM) the horsemen take a 30 minute lunch break. Most don’t eat, they just drink! The horses are taken well care of by their riders. The half plastered men actually take much better care of their horses than they do of themselves. With a renewed vigor after a short rest, the revelries begin again and the men get crazier as time goes on by creating stunts like standing on their mounts, etc.
All along the trail, many of the other residents offer food (usually great gumbo, even crawfish, shrimp and any other kind of etouffe’ dish you can think of to anyone who might be hungry in the caravan. It’s universally this way and it’s consistent from year to year. Louisiana is known for its hospitality (even to total strangers) and it’s another way of showing cultural traditions and how great its local cuisine tastes.
Eventually the day comes to an end and the count of chickens totals 25-30. The caravan comes to a stop right at the edge of town. Many of the runners/horsemen family members arrive to greet their men and many just collapse onto the grass fields that outline the ditches along the farm road.
I noticed mathematics is important in this venture. There has to be 100 horsemen, there has to be a certain number of chickens caught. One thing that a record is not kept of though and it’s probably a good idea it isn’t, is the amount of alcohol and beer consumption by all those involved. It can be a trying time if you are covering this event but it’s something you look forward to witnessing and recording again and again every Mardi Gras.