Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Courir de Mardi Gras

This is Mardi Gras Cajun style. It’s a scene enacted all over Acadia, but this year we decided to attend the Courir de Mardi Gras in the little town of Eunice, about 150 miles west of New Orleans.

The Cajuns, as everyone knows, are descendents of peasants from the west of France who originally settled “Acadia” in Canada in the 17th century. When the British conquered their part of Canada in the early 18th, the French settlers were subjected to a ruthless “ethnic cleansing.” Some of the survivors eventually made it to Louisiana, where they still form a recognizable group and still speak French (or at least, their own version of French). Many of the Cajuns settled in the swamps and bayous, but there are also “prairie Cajuns” who raise cattle and rice.

So what exactly is going on here? Well, every Mardi Gras morning, the participants in the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras dress in costumes, mask, and set out on horseback (and on wagon beds—an important component, since the wagons hold the beer and the portapotties). Ranging over the countryside, they sing, dance, and beg at each house until the owners offer them some of the ingredients for gumbo. Since one of the ingredients is chicken, this frequently involves live chickens being tossed into the air. The revelers—usually in increasing stages of intoxication—chase the chickens in a free-for-all that has been likened to (drunk) football players trying to recover a fumble.

The costume is traditional. The capuchons or conical hats date back to the Middle Ages and are meant to mock the headdresses of medieval noblewomen. The fringes and patches also hark back to the days of tattered poverty.

While the Courir participants are out chasing chickens and sausages, the people left in town wander around an arts and crafts fair, listen to live Cajun and Zydeco bands, and dance in the streets. By late afternoon, the Courir returns and parades down Main Street. We’re talking hundreds of riders, dancing on their horses, riding backwards, covered in mud from chasing chickens through crawfish ponds, and still drinking beer. At the end of it all, the chickens, onions, tomatoes, etc, they’ve collected are used to prepare a great communal meal of gumbo.

I’ve always wanted to experience the Courir de Mardi Gras, but we actually ended up spending this year’s Mardi Gras in Eunice thanks to a bit of serendipity. A couple of weeks ago an email appeared in my mailbox entitled “Long lost cousin?” You see, genealogy is one of my passions, and I’ve been in touch with a couple in Germany (with access to incredibly well-preserved church records) who have a huge site dedicated to tracing one part of my mother’s family back so far it’s scary. Well, it turns out that “Ed” is my third cousin once removed. A branch of my great-grandfather’s family traveled up the river to Acadia and settled in the Eunice, Mowata, and Roberts Cove area at the end of the nineteenth century. Their descendents have interbred with the Cajuns, so although I don’t have a drop of Cajun in me personally, a lot of these inebriated revelers are my distant cousins.

Which is how I ended up spending the day watching a bunch of drunks on horseback chase chickens.

Happy Mardi Gras everybody!


Charles Gramlich said...

I've seen a lot of pics of these celebrations but never been. I love the gumbo making tradition.

Steve Malley said...

A little history and a lot of fun. Thanks for that!

Lana Gramlich said...

Congrats on finding a distant relative. :)

Sphinx Ink said...

Interesting, C.S., and how serendipitous to find a relative in that way; it bears out the "six degrees of separation" theory. I've read about the Courir du Mardi Gras over the years, but never seen one myself--sounds like fun. However, I've always felt bad for the chickens. (At the same time, I do love chicken and sausage gumbo....) Nice pix, too.

Shauna Roberts said...

I've always wanted to see the Courir but never got around to it. It sounds like a lot of fun, and your pictures are great.

I wonder what the average percentage of French inheritance is among current Cajuns, given the several other ethnic groups that have settled with them and intermarried.

Did you eat the gumbo, or did they have something vegetarian available?

Anonymous said...

to Shauna..
why would there be a vegetarian gumbo? are you kidding me? grow up and try to experience new cultures. vegetarianism is not a part of this culture and not having meat in a gumbo is sacrilege.

Shauna Roberts said...

Anonymous, I asked Candice whether she had eaten the gumbo because she is a vegetarian (as I am 99% of the time). We have both lived in many different places and have enjoyed experiencing the varied cultures. Abstaining from meat does not take away from partaking of the wondrous kaleidoscope of a particular culture, particularly one as rich and multifaceted as New Orleans'.

Megan Guedry Fontenot said...

I'm a born and bred Cajun and my husband was born and raised in Eunice so we do highly anticipate and participate in the run every year. You want 100% traditional Mardi Gras? Head a little further north to the town of Mamou.

I noticed the emphasis on the drunks and drinking in this article. Yes, it's true...we Cajuns love to drink. And we have a festival to celebrate everything. Crawfish, sugar cane, frogs, swine, yams...you name it, we celebrate it. But no matter where I go in this country, I will never, ever find somewhere like south Louisiana and the hospitality the people bring. I guarantee that anyone who has never been to Mardi Gras in Eunice, Durald, Mamou,etc. would come back every year!

As far as the comment on vegetarian gumbo goes...it ain't gumbo if it doesn't have meat! Mardi Gras is the last day before Lent begins and the people around here are mainly Catholic. Die hard Catholics abstain from meat completely during Lent and the others don't eat meat on Fridays. If you've never had a true Cajun gumbo before, you are missing out!

We will be attending the Durald Run like we do every year. It's held the Sunday before Mardi Gras. Durald is a small community in Eunice and after the run, all the revelers head to the Johnsons house. Yes, a house. Where you will eat the BEST gumbo for miles around and watch as all the drunk fools chase chickens and greased up pigs. Even the women and kids take part.

I hope all of you have a safe and happy Mardi Gras!

Jacob B. said...

Mardi Gras is a big thing yea. i been here for 18 years of my life, and but only a couple years ago have i found out the reason for the community gumbo. mardi gras is the day before ash wednesday, which in catholic faith begins the season of lent where you are s'posed to fast and not eat meats, except for fish on fridays pretty much, and so on and so on. but mardi gras came to the u.s. from the Le Moyne brothers in the late 17th century when they were sent by the king to defend the territory which at the time included all the louisiana purchase and some of mississippi, alabama, and florida. there is a place just down the river from new orleans where the two brothers celebrated the first mardi gras here they called pointe de mardi gras (fat tuesday point). but yea, it spread from there and is what it is now.

also, my heritage isn't from acadia, my line is from france from belgium. and i'm sumhow related to emile borel, a great mathematician out of sweden...AND ALL GAUTHIERS IN LOUISIANA(let alone almost all the u.s.) ARE MY COUSINS!!!reason behind that is the first and only gauthier from haitii fled from the island because of the revolts of the slaves. when he got here, he married a borel who was my great-great-great-great grandfathers sister.
so if any gauthier sees this, wassup cuz?

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