For three weeks in February 2017, I was in a foreign land, surrounded by French-speaking locals, yet I was in the United States – South Central and Southwest Louisiana. My sojourn to the heart of rural Cajun Country for Mardis Gras was chock full of firsts – a pleasant surprise for someone quickly approaching the half-century mark.

The genesis of the trip was an episode of HBO’s “Treme,” a show about New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. In one episode a main character experiences the “Courir de Mardi Gras,” or Mardi Gras Run, in Cajun country. Watching, I was immediately struck by the strange costumes and customs. I knew I had to see the spectacle in person.

I’ll Make This Little History Lesson Quick

To understand the Courir de Mardi Gras, you must first know about the migration to the region by Acadians – French-Canadians from the Maritime Provinces of Canada, including Nova Scotia, forced from their their lands by the British after the French and Indian War. German, Spanish, French, English, Indian and other cultures added to the Acadian culture and produced the Cajun culture; the word “Cajun” comes from the word “Acadian.” (A very simplistic summary – if you want to know more about it, start here.) Longfellow wrote a long, rambling and dense poem about Acadians’ expulsion from their adopted homeland, if you’d like to try to take it on. The poem is called “Evangeline,” and it is the reason you find so many things named “Evangeline” in Cajun country, from parishes to townships, theaters to hotels, and quick stops.

To further appreciate the Courir, it helps to know a little about Carnival season. (A friend recently confided she thought Mardi Gras celebrations occurred only in New Orleans!) Mardi Gras is celebrated throughout the United States, and especially the state of Louisiana and the Southern Gulf states. Ever heard of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro? Yup, same thing.

Witnessing the drunken debauchery often associated with Mardi Gras, it is almost hard to fathom that it began as a religious celebration. Carnival season begins on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day), culminating with Lundi Gras, or Fat Monday, followed by Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday (also known as Shrove Tuesday), and Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent – unbridled hedonism, followed by self-imposed temperance.

Wholly Holy, Batman!

Cajuns were devout people (and many of them still are today). Grand Coteau, Louisiana, population 931,

is the site of the only Vatican-recognized miracle in the United States, when in 1864 Saint John Berchmans appeared to a gravely ill Mary Wilson and cured her just as she was close to death.

Religious facilities dominate tiny Grand Coteau, including The Academy of the Sacred Heart,

Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat,

and Saint Charles Borromeo Church, including a cemetery for priests.

A few miles down the road in Richard, Louisiana, a town not even counted in the last census, lies the grave of Charlene Richard, known as “The Little Cajun Saint” (although she has not been beatified).

When little Charlene was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 12, she offered her suffering up to God and prayed for the souls of sinners. She died in 1959.

People claim that praying at Charlene’s grave cured them of chronic diseases.

A Little More History – The Courir

The Courir, or run, began hundreds of years ago, when revelers on horseback visited rural farms, begging for contributions for a communal gumbo on Fat Tuesday. They wore tattered rags, gloves, and a mask and pointy hat, known as a capuchon. The anonymity of the costume afforded carte blanche to abandon social mores and “let loose,” still very much a part of the tradition today. (At first I found the get-up creepy, vaguely reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, especially since there is palpable racial tension in southern Louisiana; a Sheriff’s Deputy in a nearby town was recently terminated when it was revealed that he was a member of the KKK. I was relieved to hear the KKK was formed at least 200 years after the Courir started.)

Overseen by the Capitaine, wearing a cape and outfitted with a whip to keep everyone in line, participants moved from farm to farm on his command. They begged, doing a little dance or playing a tune for the farmers. One such tune is ubiquitous in Cajun country during Mardi Gras season, “La Danse de Mardi Gras,” sung in Cajun French but translated as follows:

The Mardi Gras gather once a year
To ask for charity
They gather once a year
All around the village

Captain, captain, carry your flag
Let’s go visit our neighbors
Captain, captain, carry your flag
Let’s go on the road

The Mardi Gras ask for the permission to enter
Of every master and every mistress
They ask for the permission to enter
With courtesy

Captain, captain, carry your flag
Let’s go visit our neighbors
Captain, captain, carry your flag
Let’s go on the road

Give us a little fat chicken
Yes, or a little rice
We invite you to come tonight
And eat some good gumbo

Captain, captain, carry your flag
Let’s go visit our neighbors
Captain, captain, carry your flag
Let’s go on the road

Would you receive these Mardi Gras
This great bunch of big drunks
The Mardi Gras thank you very much
Of your good intentions

Captain, captain, carry your flag
Let’s go visit our neighbors
Captain, captain, carry your flag
Let’s go on the road

The Mardi Gras come from everywhere
To ask for charity
They gather from everywhere
But mostly from Big Mamou.

The tune may be familiar to you. Here is a version by Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys:

The most prized donation for the gumbo was a chicken, and runners chased and captured the donated fowl, thrown into the air by the Capitaine.

I couldn’t wait to experience it all, but first we had to get there.

NOLA Parade

We kicked off Mardi Gras season with the first big parade in New Orleans, Krewe du Vieux.

(Krewes are groups who sponsor and plan Mardi Gras parades, each Krewe having a distinct vibe and culture.) Krewe de Vieux is known for its irreverent and phallic representations; all the locals warned, “Don’t bring any kiddos!” We watched the festivities in the Marigny with my friend Monty, who lives in New Orleans,

and floats dripping with scathing satire abounded. After all, there was just so much political material over the last year!

Lafayette & Scott, Louisiana Parades

We moved onto Lafayette, the center of Cajun culture in Louisiana, where the Krewe of Rio was having its parade on Saturday night. Sipping on award-winning Old-Fashioneds at Don’s Seafood in downtown Lafayette before the parade, we lucked out when we met Mike and Marcelle,

locals who joined us to watch the parade, springing for rounds of drinks and giving us all the “throws” they caught. (A “throw” is commonly a string of beads thrown from a float, but can include candy, frisbees, tamborines, footballs, plastic cups, and the like.)

My neck was so heavy with beads that I was hunched over!

The following day it was time for another parade, this time in the town of Scott, Louisiana, population 8,700.

I perfected my hooting and hollering and “Throw me something, Mister” chant, walking away with another back-breaking weight of beads.

I made a Mardi Gras wreath for the door of the RV from my haul.

It Is An Honor To Be Named A Cajun, AND A “Coon Ass”

One week before Mardi Gras we moved to Eunice, Louisiana, population 10,000, one of the communities in the area with Courirs on Mardis Gras day.

Mike from Lafayette came for a visit at the campground in Eunice, bestowing us with Honorary Cajun certificates and a passel of goodies from his uncle Tony Chachere’s company. We had no idea when we met Mike that he was related to such Cajun royalty!

Mike also invaded his deep freeze, bringing homemade gumbo and soup and a stew with rice he dubbed “Pork Extravaganza,” which was delicious!

We were touched by his generosity and kind heart.

Seeing the Honorary Cajun certificate, L’Acadie RV Park manager Sharon (depicted here on Mardis Gras Day with her dog Boulette, which is French for “Meatball” – “Boo” for short)

ran to her truck, ripped a magnet off the back, and returned, bestowing another honor: “Registered Coon Ass.”

I was unfamiliar with the term, and she explained it was a derogatory label for a Cajun. However, like so many hateful words meant to shame and deride, the phrase was co-opted by the group itself, taking away the sting and stigma. I proudly affixed the magnet to the toad, hoping that anyone who saw it understood it was an honorary title, and no “Coon Ass” would kick MY ass.

Setting An Alarm To Go To A Bar

On Saturday morning we drove a few minutes to Mamou, population 3,100, to Fred’s Lounge, which is open only on Saturday mornings.

Doors open before 8 a.m., and there is a live Cajun band. When the Courirs ceased because of World War II, the hundreds of years of tradition could have died right there and then, but Fred’s Lounge was instrumental in reviving it.

Although Fred passed away in the early 1990s, his painstakingly hand-printed signs still hang on the wall, admonishing patrons not to dance on the furniture, and reminding them that the joint is not a dance hall; if you dance, you do so at your own risk!

An elderly man in a Wrangler cowboy shirt, boots, and cowboy hat entered with his wife into the standing-room only crowd. He could barely walk due to his infirmities, sitting on one of the few chairs along the wall as his wife stood over him protectively. But, just as soon as the music started, he was waltzing and two-stepping and twirling around the dance floor. It was really beautiful to behold.

Outside Fred’s, in honor of upcoming Mardi Gras, the one and only street in Mamou was cordoned off for a festival. People wore festive costumes and clothing reminiscent of the Courir costumes, and the chicken theme ran throughout the crowd.

An Historic Cajun Radio Show

Another Saturday tradition is the live radio broadcast at The Liberty Theater in Eunice, “Rendez-Vous Des Cajun.” The show on KRVS-FM 88.7 began in 1987 when the former 1920’s vaudeville theater was restored.

Barry Jean Ancelet hosts in half-French, half-English, and dancers two-step and waltz on the wooden floor in front of the stage.

Being Mardis Gras season, we were visited during the show by the Mardis Gras runners from the neighboring town of Basile, and I got my first look at the Courir costumes. They danced for us, then circulated through the theater saying “Sans sous,” which literally translates to “no money,” scraping the palm of one hand with the fingers of the other, begging for coins.

When it was time to leave, the Capitaine initiated a call-and-response, in French. The group replied in unison, in French. Tears welled in my eyes as I realized I was witnessing something very old, very sacred, and deeply ingrained in the culture of this community.

Lundi Gras Boucherie

With Lent only a couple of days away, what better way to satisfy hedonistic pleasure-seeking than to butcher a hog and cook all that glorious, greasy food? We attended a Monday Boucherie at the barn at Lakeview RV resort.

While the bands played, every part of the cochon was put to good use, including cracklins made from pig skin; stew from backbone; pork steak; boudin from ground pork and intestinal lining; fresseurs made from organs; and ponce, made from stomach.

At Long Last – Mardis Gras Day

Mardi Gras day in Eunice consists of the Courir, thirteen miles through the countryside, followed by a parade with the participants and floats in town. I had every intention of following the Courir that morning, and I drove to the rallying point in town at 7:30 a.m. As “La Danse de Mardi Gras” played on a continuous loop over loudspeakers, people in full costumes arrived, on foot, on ATVs, on horseback, and in trucks pulling horse trailers. I expected to see people with coolers, loading up a few beers here and there. Instead, a Miller Lite beer truck the size of a semi tractor-trailer pulled up, unloading dolly after dolly of beer cases onto the floats.

When the Courir pulled out of town over an hour later than scheduled, I was bringing up the rear, the only car in the line. Directly in front of me was a garbage truck, following a police car, which marked the end of the Courir. The garbage truck was picking up all the garbage tossed by the Courir along the way! My stomach began its familiar rumbling, letting me know that a bathroom would be required in short order, which would likely be problematic out there. Smelling nothing but horse shit and the garbage truck, I returned home, opting to see the runners in the parade later. Here are some photos of the run from the local paper.

By 4:00 p.m. the runners returned from the country, and the parade in downtown Eunice was led by the them on horseback, followed by the floats and throws.

Many participants proudly displayed the chickens and roosters they caught during the Courir.

And speaking of throws, another first – some of the floats threw Jell-O shots! Excellent!

As the Cajuns say, I passed an enjoyable time in rural Louisiana. I met charming and kind people who showed me true Cajun hospitality. It was an unusual experience I will never forget.