We’re always wanted to experience a traditional Mardi Gras, but not THAT Mardi Gras … you know … the one with too much everything, in New Orleans. Too many boobs, too much booze, too many tourists, just plain TOO much! Instead, we found the second largest Mardi Gras in the state, in Lake Charles, LA. Let the good times roll, or as they say in these cajun/French parts, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
Mardi Gras is one massive party because of what it preceeds: Ash Wednesday and the start of Catholic lent, a.k.a. 40 days of behaving yourself and getting your life back together. So, the week leading up to Mardi Gras, and especially “Fat Tuesday,” are all a way to pack a whole bunch of fun into life, before you can’t have any more fun for a while.
The “main event,” or Krewe of Krewes Parade, on the night of Fat Tuesday was a total blast. Each of about 60 krewes (the social groups that exist solely to host parties and parades during Mardi Gras) snake their way down the street, throwing beads and toys and trinkets to screaming onlookers. (Click the play button on the video below.)
For reasons unknown to me, rubber ducks, packages of ramen, and moon pies are traditionally coveted and popular items. We ended up with quite a haul (helllllooooo, grandchildren!), not to mention a lifetime’s worth of beads.
Greatly desired (but not received), hula hoops and light-up sunglasses. Not desired but received nonetheless, an empty Fireball bottle thrown off the float and given to the delighted 10 year old boy in front of us. (His dad, not so delighted.) Mardi Gras is a parade season, so there are other parades leading up to the main one, including a Jeep Parade, “Second Line” Walking Parade, Childrens Parade, and others. All of them, throwing junk, to all of us, raving lunatics wanting allll the 10 cent items.
At the other end of the glitz spectrum is the traditional Mardi Gras chicken run. The one we attended was the 47th annual to be held in Iowa, Louisiana: pronounced “I-way.” For a really great description of the event, click here, but in the meantime, I’ll try to explain with pictures and videos!
Residents of the small town gather with friends and family in the town square (in this case, Knights of Columbus parking lot) with their vehicles and homemade floats. Music plays, people dance, cocktails are poured. (It’s 10 AM) Some are very simple (a flatbed, some folding chairs, and a porta-john), and a few are super special, like this one.
This is no fancy-pants Mardi Gras parade … no sirree, this is the common country man’s celebration. Rather than glitter and sequins, the preferred attire for a Chicken Run involves fringe added to overalls, as the leader of this event demonstrated. But, some people just can’t keep their stylish flair under wraps.
Not everyone wants to stand out, however. These fellas are saying “Ruh-roh!” and trying to blend into the background. Because they’re on the menu! More on that soon.
The purpose of the chicken run is to create a community pot of gumbo or jambalaya for everyone to share. Anyone can be in the parade, just get on/in your vehicle and follow along!
The procession goes through the neighborhoods, stopping at various houses. When it stops, everyone is supposed to get off their vehicles, start dancing to music played on zydecos and washboards, and if the resident of the house approves of the dancing, they will contribute groceries to the community gumbo, as did this woman.
What’s realllly needed for a good pot of stew, however, is fresh chicken. At the stop, the leader blows his whistle, and the children all come running like he’s the Pied Piper of Louisiana.
They proceed into an open field and he throws the chicken onto the ground, where it runs for its ever-frickin-lovin’ life, with hundreds of screaming kids trying to grab it. What a hoot! Click the play button on the video.
At one point the chicken ran through Philip’s legs, but in the end he was beat out by an actual child (not just a 69-year-old child-at-heart), who exchanges the chicken for a $1 bill, but retains bragging rights.
All this is just for fun and show in these modern times, as the gumbo has already been simmering away for hours at this point, and thus no live chickens (at least not these ones) are actually harmed for the Chicken Run. A good time is definitely had by all, though, and the food is plentiful and delicious.
They don’t believe in spankings or taking away a kid’s allowance here in SW Louisiana, nosiree. Instead, naughty children are punished by making them untangle beads on the floats.
A true highlight of our visit to Lake Charles was reconnecting with someone from Philip’s way-distant past. It had been 47 years since Philip Miller and John Sauls parted ways under a freeway overpass in 1976, with Philip and his harmonica hitchhiking west to his eventual future.
We recreated one of the last times they saw each other — fast forwarded many decades!
They found each other again through the magic of Facebook, and the reunion was filled with fun memories, particularly those generated by an ancient scrapbook that John brought along, of their time together helping to rebuild a convent in Haiti, when they were young and crazy. But that’s a story for a different blog, or actually better told in person. Ask Philip about it, next time you see him!
We really enjoyed getting to know Lake Charles and its cute downtown, right on the lake.
Another highlight of being at a “smaller” Mardi Gras was being able to wander amongst the krewes and talk to them as the prepared for the big parade.
If you’ve never heard of king cake, it’s a Mardi Gras tradition. A large ring cake that is kind of a combination brioche/cinnamon roll with various forms of yummy inside (pecan praline, anyone?), it’s slathered in frosting that’s the colors of Mardi Gras: purple, green, and yellow. Hidden inside is a tiny plastic baby, and whomever gets the baby (not us), wins a prize … usually the “prize” of having to buy the next king cake 🙂 Anyway, it was delicious!
We didn’t completely eschew New Orleans, however, proceeding there AFTER the Mardi Gras crowds had dissipated, to visit our friends Mike and Rosary, who moved here from Arizona a year ago and knew justttt the right place to go for an awesome po-boy and some shrimp and grits.
We also found time to re-visit the National World War II Museum, one of the top museums in the country, and one of our all-time faves for it’s incredible multimedia, interactive, and immersive exhibits. It was particularly poignant as we were there on the first anniversary of start of the Russian/Ukraine war and all its global implications.
“Let the good times roll”? We sure did! But now it’s time to roll on down the road. We’re headed to a popular locale amongst RV’ers: Gulf Shores, Alabama, and its sugary white sand beaches!