“It’s basically about the gumbo,” says Fred Charlie. Charlie is a Cajun musician who works in radio in Louisiana, the birthplace of the hearty stew that holds a special place in the hearts of the state’s residents, particularly during Cajun Mardi Gras.
Charlie, who has lived in Eunice, Louisiana, his whole life, doesn’t celebrate the famed Mardi Gras of New Orleans. Festivities and traditions vary from city to city, but Cajun Mardi Gras is its own special thing.
It dates back to the 1600s, and although some details have changed throughout the years, much of what defines the pastime remains intact. There is still a chicken chase. There are elaborate costumes and a fais dodo (Cajun dance party). There is ultimately gumbo.
Here’s how it works: On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the Courir de Mardi Gras (translated from French Cajun, it means “Fat Tuesday Run”) takes center stage in the part of the state known as Acadiana. In order to participate in the actual run, you must be in costume. Charlie is clear on this point: No costume, no running. He can’t stress enough the importance of respecting the celebration’s traditions.
The event’s rise in popularity—Charlie says there are sometimes up to 1,000 participants in each town that holds the Courir de Mardi Gras—means you now have to register and pay a small fee the morning of the run.
Historically, the run was about going from house to house begging for ingredients to make gumbo, which was enjoyed before the Lenten season began. In exchange for the gifts, the participants performed dances in a show of gratitude. Things have evolved a bit over the years. Charlie explains that now “you have a designated trail that you’re going to go on, and then you’re going to come back into town to finish [the run].”
If your knees prevent you from sprinting, there’s plenty of entertainment to be had as a bystander. Watching this inimitable part of the Cajun Mardi Gras in all its uniqueness and offbeat charm is something Charlie hopes visitors will appreciate. He knows people unfamiliar with the practice might find it odd, but, he promises, “it has a lot of meaning to our culture and to the Mardi Gras run itself.”
At the end of the day, no matter how you feel about chicken chasing or gumbo, Cajun Mardi Gras is as much a party as the better-known Mardi Gras taking place in the big city.
“Mardi Gras is a time that you can misbehave,” Charlie says. People come out to have a good time, to dance, and to eat and drink well. It’s a time to enjoy one’s self and prepare for the holy season ahead. Mardi Gras is the day you go all out. “It’s a fun time for everybody,” Charlie says, adding that it’s also about community and bringing people together. “I think I can speak for all Cajuns: The traditions are the thing that you don’t want to lose.”
As Charlie puts it: “There’s a lot more to Louisiana than New Orleans.” Travelers willing to venture past the big, bright city will surely be rewarded.