Cajun Mardi Gras

No tourists allowed at this secret celebration in the Louisiana countryside

No tourists allowed at this secret celebration in the Louisiana countryside

By Jesse Hardman for Al Jazeera America

Photos by William Widmer for Al Jazeera America

Edited by Katherine Lanpher, Mark Rykoff

Courir participants beg for ingredients for the communal gumbo served at the end of the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras, above.

Published on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015

ACADIANA, La. — It is just after dawn on Mardi Gras, but I'm not at some Bourbon Street bar, facedown on the floor trying to rally for some morning parades. No, I’m off a country road more than 100 miles from New Orleans, shivering in near freezing weather, wearing a patchwork yellow and orange costume I pieced together, kneeling in the mud as a bunch of strangers dressed in red and black pour alcohol on me and threaten me with a whip.

In order to set foot on this farm somewhere in southern Louisiana, I had to swear not to reveal the location, the names of the event organizers or anything else that might lead you to this Cajun version of X marks the spot. The Courir de Mardi Gras is a version of a centuries-old begging procession that began in rural France as a precursor to Lent. This part of Louisiana, also known as Acadiana, was settled by a French Catholic diaspora expelled from northeastern Canada by the British in the 1600s. Eventually they migrated, with their French traditions, to the American South.

The first Mardi Gras in the region is tied to explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, founder of the first permanent French settlement in Louisiana. Barry Jean Ancelet, who heads the department of French and Francophone studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, says that in 1699 Iberville and his men, realizing it was Mardi Gras on their calendar as they arrived along the Mississippi River Delta, “pulled off to the side of the bank and drank all the booze they had in the canoes and put on some animal pelts.”

Over time, Ancelet says, Louisiana inherited two distinct versions of Mardi Gras from French settlers. The urban, more commonly known one, involves a procession, with people watching and stretching their arms out to beg, originally for colorful glass beads, now for plastic versions. But in the rural version, or Courir de Mardi Gras, the procession does the begging, from the people they’re visiting. The Courir, or run, visits farmhouses, connecting with neighbors and gathering ingredients for a chicken gumbo, a soup that blends culinary traditions from Louisiana’s myriad settlers from France, Spain, the West Indies and Italy.

This is the version that my host, a local Cajun musician, stages in and around his farm, a field length away from where he grew up. It was the 10th run he has organized. His motive?

“I do this for me, not for you guys,’’ he says, meaning the world outside his tradition.

First-year participants are ordered to kneel down in the mud, a rite of passage at the beginning of the traditional Courir (Click to enlarge images)

While many participants revere the Courir as a more traditional, back-to-the-roots version of Mardi Gras, Ancelet notes that it has its modern elements too. Many of the participants find out about the event on social media, and whether they live in places as near as Lafayette or far away as England, they are part of a virtual community that shares photos, experiences and excitement about the Courir year round.

“I’m intrigued by the run because it’s responding to a remarkably changing notion of who you feel like is in your community,’’ Ancelet says. “You don’t have to be geographic neighbors with someone to feel like they’re in your community. It could be your Facebook friend.”

He says any tradition must get with the times. “If it doesn’t adapt, it gets relegated to some preservation museum. It's like a butterfly pinned to a board,” he says.

I wanted to find this tradition. And I did, which is how I wind up in the middle of nowhere at 7 a.m. on Fat Tuesday, freezing in a costume. I unscrew the top off a flask of cinnamon whiskey purchased at a gas station, lift my mask and swallow. My feet, already damp and contemplating hypothermia, begin to warm up, a smile spreads across my face, and the sun cracks through menacing gray clouds. I am surrounded by a couple hundred masked patrons, slogging through prairie mud, all wrapped in colorful Goodwill-inspired costumed anonymity.

A fellow reveler dressed in a red suit with a decorated sombrero, visiting from Baton Rouge, asks me to take a picture. He has done the Courir before and looks forward to it all year.

“It’s like going to church,’’ he says. “It’s sort of a rejection of the corporate, big business Mardi Gras.”

Slideshow: Not your tourist's Mardi Gras

  • One key facet of the Courir is that everyone wears a mask. Many of those in the procession make their own masks and costumes. (Click to enlarge images)
  • One of the younger runners holds a prized part of the chicken gumbo recipe. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Conical hats, or capuchon, are encouraged, the better to make fun of French noblewomen. Since the Courir is based on a centuries-old begging procession that was practiced in rural France in the days leading up to Lent, noblewomen, scholars and clergy are all targets of parody. (Click to enlarge images)
  • As long as you're wearing a mask, what happens at Courir stays at Courir. Runners are asked to swear that they will not name the location or the organizers of the Courir de Mardi Gras, which is just one of several that happen in the Louisana countryside. (Click to enlarge images)
  • A couple poses in their Courir outfits. For many, this procession serves as a corrective to the touristy, corporate version of Mardi Gras that can be found on Bourbon Street. (Click to enlarge images)
  • Participants gather inside a tent at the beginning of the Courir de Mardi Gras, which differs from the Mardi Gras tradition many associate with Bourbon Street and New Orleans. (Click to enlarge images)

We all paid $20 to cover the costs of gumbo, music and beer. A Tulane University economist estimated a few years ago that $300 million is dropped on New Orleans during Mardi Gras each year. But what we are about to partake in is different, a kind of Carnival epiphany that can happen only in an open field — raw, cold and silent — where it’s easier to reflect on the core tenets of Mardi Gras, the Lenten value of community and the abundance of life.

A few hours earlier, I was sitting in the automated breakfast nook near the computerized pancake maker at the local Holiday Inn Express. Tired, cold and forgetting that I had already put my costume on, I look a bit creepy-clown-meets-traveling-salesman. My getup is a train wreck of hospital scrubs, orange fringe and a disassembled yellow work shirt.

Upon instruction from some Courir veterans, my costume also includes a conical hat, or capuchon, meant to mock French noblewomen. Participants can also wear mitres or mortarboards, to deride the church or the highly educated. Everyone has to keep his or her identity hidden with a mask. That important task led me to a Hobby Lobby in Shreveport, where the cashier pointed me to an aisle containing “feathers and leathers,” which she says while doing a little shimmy with her shoulders. Keeping with my color scheme, my felt mask is yellow with an orange pointy nose and an orange beard. Most important, it will help keep my face warm, since the local forecast calls for 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

I chat up a few other costumed folks over a bowl of instant oatmeal. A husband and wife are in town from Houston, but they grew up in Louisiana and a few years ago began rediscovering the Courir tradition, which the woman says she rejected as a teenager. “I never did this when I was growing up,” she says, but now “I don’t ever want to miss it.”

There are few physical attributes to focus on during the Courir, other than “nice repurposing of a work-shirt into fringes” or “that papier-mâché nose is incredible.” And the colors — oh, the colors — like a United Nations meeting if the flags were made from recycled bedsheets.

A leader in a captain's hat supervises participants as they make their way down a gravel road at the beginning of the event. At the wave of his flag, the Courir participants rush toward a homestead to kneel and beg for the ingredients to make a chicken gumbo. (Click to enlarge images)

More than 250 of us wait under a tent in a slog of country mud for instructions. A kind of Cajun Napoleon in red pajamas arrives on stage, complete with a captain’s jacket, a two-pointed black hat and a whip. This is the traditional MC of the Courir, and before we head out on the run, he has a few instructions for us, which include no leaving beer bottles on people’s farmland and no ugly women, just good-looking ones.

‘“If you’re ugly, make sure you wear two masks, just in case,” he says.

Then he brings out a parade of henchwomen, including a particularly memorable nun dressed in a red and black habit, bearing ropelike whips to keep us in line. “You’re going to get an ass whooping today,” she announces.

We set out on a country road, a raggedy race of colorful merriment heading toward local homes, to dance and beg for money and food so we can make a gumbo at the end of this Mardi Gras trail. The guide on this route is called the Capitaine, a man on horseback with a white flag. He rides ahead to tiny farmhouses to ask permission for us to visit. When he gets the go-ahead, he raises his flag, and we rush onto the front lawn of a prefab brown single-family home, where an extended family looks on with smiles and iPads.

We kneel on their lawn and beg by singing in French, “Donnez-moi quelque chose pour le Mardi Gras!” (“Give me something for Mardi Gras!”) Nickels and granola bars come flying back at us. Then a trailer appears on the road with a full Cajun band — fiddles, accordion, guitar and even a musician in a gorilla suit playing a triangle. We dance, likely tearing up this modest family’s lawn. I twirl a few strangers, and then the family tosses a ceremonial live chicken into the air. Half the crowd continues dancing, while the rest go tearing through the yard, lunging at a hen that proves wily but ultimately unable to get enough lift off the ground to escape. With the bird neatly tucked into a costumed armpit, we head back down the road.

Musicians play traditional Cajun songs as participants dance in the front yard of a homestead. Participants chase after a chicken, the ingredient most coveted for the gumbo. (Click to enlarge images)

I keep pace with a man dragging a small cooler. He offers me a skinny can of beer, and we immediately recognize each other’s accents.

“Minnesota,” I say. “Ontario,” he replies, and I laugh. He started driving to southern Louisiana the previous Saturday night by himself.

His main mission was to pick up a left-handed accordion being crafted by none other than our red-pajama-wearing Napoleonic taskmaster. The Acadiana part of Louisiana has been reviving its status as of late as a hub for traditional Cajun music and instruments. It’s hard to find left-handed squeezeboxes, he says, but he knew he could find one down here.

As we march under growing sunny warmth, we marvel at the beautiful prairie on either side of our dirt road. “Looks a little like Saskatchewan,” he says.

Two more chickens captured, we march ahead. Eavesdropping as I walk, I hear a lot of Cajun French accents and a lot of French accents too — people exploring the vestiges of their colonial adventures. One woman explains she visited the unique Louisiana Acadian diaspora more than a decade ago and liked it so much she moved permanently to the tiny town of Opelousas.

As I head for the back of the mass, searching for a hay bale or somewhere else to relieve myself, I notice our parade had grown to include a grill trailer where men are cooking sausages, the music trailer, a trailer made out of a Head Start bus with the roof sawed off, a limousine (apparently a famous local musician was in our midst in full costume and had a limo following him) and the local sheriff.

My next travel companion is an artist from Texas, married to a Cajun. The two relocated from Houston, a city of 6 million, to a rural Acadian town of 6,000. Her husband told me earlier he had “gotten out of Acadiana as fast as I could” but “we all come home eventually.” After a year in Cajun country, his wife says she is starting to feel a little more at home. Arriving in an enormous field, we part ways.

The revelers push each other up a greased flagpole to retrieve a live chicken from a cage (Click to enlarge images)

Organizers begin preparing a ceremonial 20-foot pole with a caged hen on top. Someone climbs to the top and begins greasing the metal. Out of the open sky a drone appears, buzzing over the gathering and attracting attention. People begin murmuring about the drone, that it symbolizes a kind of violation of the event. I walk over to chat up a couple of locals, brothers Keith and Johnny, decked out in full camouflage and looking happy and warm. My thin-layered outfit is feeling more and more exposed as a cold wind whips around the barren landscape. To their credit, the duo has no qualms talking to man with a yellow face and orange beak. We watch the computerized mosquito float overhead, and seizing on the topic of technology, Keith tells me, “My wife has a computer, but I don’t know how to turn it on.” Johnny chuckles at his brother’s comment, and I have no idea if these grizzled, straight-faced Cajuns are joking.

A cheer rings out as the drone crashes into a tree. Which is good, because there are more important things to focus on. Like getting that hen down from the greased pole. I jump into a scrum of revelers who begin to form the base of a primitive human pyramid, nobody coherent enough to structure the activity; we simply push, and a few smaller farm kids scramble up our backs, getting halfway up a few times before sliding down. I am squarely at the base, boots in my face and ribs, pushing as hard as I can completely blind as my mask has slid over, blocking my sight.

It is in this moment, squashed between bodies of strangers, that I have my epiphany. It feels good to be inside the beast, fully immersed, a part of things, my body leading my brain. Eventually somebody gets high enough to release the hen, and a young ginger of a farmboy tracks it down: Our prized ingredient for the ceremonial gumbo.

Midway into our Courir, the demeanor of the run changes a little. Hours of drinking, walking and kneeling in the mud have left costumes torn and sensibilities loosened. One participant, standing by an enormous puddle just off the road is tackled and spiked in the water by a friend. More people join the bath, grinning as their masks are replaced by muddy water, conical hats floating idly away.

Two members of the group tackle each other in a muddy drainage canal, above left. Costumed musicians play traditional Cajun songs, above right. Music is played at the grave of Dennis McGee, who was a local resident and one of the earliest recorded Cajun musicians. (Click to enlarge images)

We arrive at a local cemetery. Our ringleader asks everyone to kneel, and we pay homage to Dennis McGee, one of the most famous Cajun fiddle players, who popularized songs like “Ma Chere Bebe Creole.” Both our host and the capitaine take out their fiddles to serenade the deceased. Then our guide, the Napoleon in red pajamas, gives a little speech about the importance of ancestors and traditions and — in a nod to the cellphones, the cameras and the drone that have been looming over the entire event — how we need to embody culture and not get too carried in always documenting it.

A beautiful and timely sentiment that lasts for a few minutes at least, until a fellow runner relays something she heard while walking: “Can you hold this chicken? My phone is ringing.”

The sun is fully out as we cover the last stretch of our seven-mile, six-hour odyssey. We arrive back at the farm where we started, and people begin lining up for their well-earned gumbo. As we congregate around a white tent, the party begins to feel different. Masks are off, and the anonymity that had made everyone the same for hours is lost. Stretched out along a country road, the event had the air it needed to breathe, but here, smashed together, it feels a bit like an outdoor rock concert. I make my farewells to people whose costumes I had grown to love but whose faces are new to me.

I think about all the stories shared as we drank, ran, tumbled, strained, talked, ate, laughed, danced and sang our way for miles on a country road. But as I get back in my car, part of me wishes I had never come. The delicate balance of a tradition like this means it should never get too big. I don’t want to be the one who contributed to the party’s growing one person too large, to hear that this, the 10th Courir de Mardi Gras, was the last. So if you, reader, feel compelled to find this hidden treasure next Mardi Gras, know all are welcome in this part of Cajun territory, but you best keep the details under your mask.

Photographer William Widmer, left, and reporter Jesse Hardman in their costumes (Click to enlarge images)

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