On Sunday, February 15, the small town of Church Point, Louisiana, will celebrate their fifty-fourth annual Courir de Mardi Gras. Costumed young men will begin their day with the breakfast of champions: boudin (BOO-dan), a spicy sausage made of rice and pork, washed down with beer, and lots of it. These men, who generally range from about fifteen to twenty-one years young, gather early for this rite of passage at the stable of the Saddle Tramps Rider’s Club and begin a long-anticipated day of celebration of Cajun culture, music, and food. Before the run, each costume is inspected by Le Capitaines, men who have supervised the Mardi Gras for many years and serve as the chaperons for the day. Le Capitaines do not drink and are not masked, though they wear purple, green, and gold satin capes and carry a flag as they ride their steeds from one home to another on their way to the parade.
The scene is surreal as these young men let the good times roll by pulling pranks on one another, standing on the backs of their horses, and throwing beer cans over their shoulders while yelling, “Mardi Graaaaas!” Around 8:00 am, the reveling riders are rounded up and then headed down the country lane with a thundering of hooves followed by a beer wagon. At the first stop, the riders dismount their horses and Le Capitaine approaches the front porch of a small Acadian style home with a Cajun band wailing Chanson de Mardi Gras in Cajun French accompanied by a washboard and accordion. The young men dance enthusiastically with each other as they sing along. A “Cajun Microwave,” an enclosed large pit, is opened to reveal a whole pig or couchon de lait, the riders get a bite to eat and a few more beers, and the owner of the home soon comes out with a caged chicken. The Capitaines get the rowdy posse together, a task not unlike herding kittens, and the young men prepare to catch the chicken as it is released. Not for the faint of heart, this wild chase involves climbing trees, crawling under houses, and all muddy points in between. Competition is fierce, and at the end of the day a trophy is bestowed upon the man who caught the most chickens, granting him and his family bragging rights.
The tradition of the Cajun Courir de Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday Run, was brought from rural France to Acadie, Canada, to southern Louisiana, where it evolved into a quest for ingredients for a communal gumbo through rustling, begging, and stealing. Their fringed patchwork fabric outfits stem from medieval satirical dress, similar in appearance to a court jester’s garb. Their pointed hats or capuchons, which look a lot like dunce caps, mock nobility, while their painted wire mesh window screen face masks with protruding noses conceal their identity and allow them to really let loose as they drink, prank, feast, and chase their way toward town for the big parade. Residents of Church Point and surrounding areas gather on the downtown streets eagerly awaiting the parade as they enjoy a sidewalk picnic of fried chicken and beer. This parade of at least one hundred hand-decorated floats that join in as the riders approach town is much looser than typical Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. The riders jump off and on the floats, visiting with friends and family along the way and sharing beads and jello shots. Many hold up the chickens they caught, taunting the crowd with loud hoots of “Mardi Graaaas” and “Stroke my chicken!”
Finally, the downtown jaunt circles back toward the stables, where the real party begins. The gumbo is already made, along with deep-fried pig skin “cracklins,” rice, potato salad, boudin—and did I mention beer? Cajun music echoes across the fields of the prairie, while friends and family join in for a fais do-do, a traditional Cajun dance party throwdown in the chill of winter evening. The participant’s celebration of life, or “la joie de vivre,” that is so characteristic of Cajun life and culture in South Louisiana is evident. It’s so much more than a celebratory party, however. It is carrying on a treasured cultural tradition. Laissez les bon temps rouler!