Mardi Gras in Southwest Louisiana
Chicken in the Pot: Mardi Gras Southwest Louisiana Style
Editor’s Note: This story was written prior to the devastating hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. GoNOMAD welcomes updates in the wake of the storms. Jessica Clark of the Krewe du Les Originales Et Les Enfants writes: “Rita has not dampened our Mardi Gras spirit and we have and will participate in the traditions of Southwest LA Mardi Gras! Thanks for informing people of our heritage and God Bless You.”
Story and Photos
By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor
The clucking chicken was racing for its life. Not far behind were several colorfully costumed, hardy, good old boys (many barely of age). Peaked hats and beaked noses hurling themselves into a frenzy on the red moist soil.
It was hard to tell, but I thought the chicken just might escape the gumbo pot. Alas, the chicken was destined to become a bigger part of the celebration. It was placed with others in the back of the trailer, the one where the band was playing tunes that are only known locally.
I am in Elton, Louisiana, many miles from New Orleans and that was key to my trip.
The Real Thing
While many all over the US headed to the Queen City for debauchery and beads, I went to runs and balls, pageants and plays. Southwestern Louisiana is not just Mardi Gras on display—it is living it.
Over the next several days I went from party to party, event to event, and met those who live it.
I am not putting down flying to New Orleans for a one night massive hangover, but there had to be more. That is why I started in Jennings, Louisiana. A great base located in Jeff Davis Parish (jeffdavis.org). Rice and crawfish flourish in this onetime oil mecca.
The term “Miss” (even if Miss Alice is married and 94 years old) is still used and I happen to be called Mr. Kent, even by kids.
I headed to the Holiday Inn right next to my room at the Comfort Inn to have a meal and get the rundown on the Elton Chicken Run early the next morning. My connections were David and Lorraine Bertrand, who have worked steadily to insure that the run’s tradition and rituals are maintained.
Over a local crawfish and rice feast at Walker’s, David told of when the lower echelon farmers playfully wore costumes and went by horseback place to place to gather goods for celebration. I promised to be ready at 7 AM for the run, best move I’ve made in a long time.
Start Your Horses
The mist from the bayous rose, and horse trailers pulled into the field as I cleared my eyes. Wildly costumed men and young men gathered with beer from a trailer already stocked. It seemed to be a rite of passage. I knew no one, yet greetings were given and a beer passed. It was run time.
After prayers were read we headed out, me on a trailer that contained very talented musicians and other horseless participants. The excitement was catchy and we proceeded through the Coushatta Indian Reservation.
Before long the liquor-loosened riders are standing atop their steeds, and every stop is a chicken challenge. In Southwest Louisiana many little towns and Parishes have their own way of celebrating Mardi Gras.
It’s all about the beads and I was feeling like a rock star as our float passed down Main Street. “Mister, throw me beads please!” I must have heard it a thousand times.
The city swells to at least four times its 11,500 population for the parade. The downtown reflects it – boom time 1901 oil strike. Stylewise it is typical Louisiana style and quaint to boot.
Don’t miss the Country Store Museum. It is a real step back in time. Jennings also has a fine art museum at the Ziegler Mansion. The museum has 200 works of art depicting the area. William Tolliver is the headliner and the glass collection is tops.
The Château Des Cocodries (Alligator House) will get you close to the bayou’s most popular critters. This place has charm that is pure Cajun in attitude, charm and food. It is located halfway between Houston and New Orleans.
Lake Charles, They Try Harder
New Orleans may be the biggest Mardi Gras, but like Avis, Lake Charles trys harder. This city attracts the second biggest crowd for its celebration. Some even claim it’s the safer and purer version. (visitlakecharles.org)
In fact the area is known as the festival capitol of Louisiana with more than 75 scheduled yearly. (cityoflakecharles.com/festivals)
If that’s not enough excitement, there are several casinos in the city. My home base was the Isle of Capri, a large resort on the banks of the Lake. (isleofcapricasino.com/Lake_Charles/)
Lake Charles’ biggest attractions, however, are the friendly people that strive to make the city a showpiece. It is no wonder the pirate Jean Lafitte was a frequent visitor!
The Main Event
The excitement has been building for a year, and Lake Charles is prepared. (cityoflakecharles.com/festivals/mardi_gras.asp)
Mardi Gras season begins with the Twelfth Night on Jan. 6th. Its highlight is the parade of the kings, queens and captains of the 42 Krewes. The Krewes are the organizations that sponsor floats and activities, and members are asked to join. Each has their own theme and charities.
In Lake Charles it is possible to attend the Royal Gala, the strutting of the Krewes in full costume and display. This is the only place in Louisiana where that is possible.
Other events are Cajun tastes and cookoffs, children’s parade and block parties galore. The main event is of course the Krewe of Krewes parade. For hours the procession parades down the route, complete with beads flying and people partying; the good times truly roll.
After the excitement of the past several days, we opted for the chance to explore some nature and scenery. The Creole Nature Trail was just the thing. (creolenaturetrail.org/)
This route follows a 180-mile National Scenic Byway, the first in the Gulf South. On display is a world where water, swamp and Cajun culture meet. Along the way are centers where all you see is explained.
While the gators are king, you will run into 16 species of mammals, 250 species of birds as well as a variety of reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. A stop at one of the many small towns with numerous small restaurants will please any foodie. This is a perfect ending to one of America’s most unique destinations.