A dozen young men in colorful costumes chase a chicken across a soggy rice field in Mamou, La. (pop. 3,566), continuing a Mardi Gras tradition that’s been celebrated for generations in Cajun country.
When one of the mud-spattered men captures the squawking bird, screams of jubilation erupt among the crowd gathered for the annual Courir de Mardi Gras, in which more than 100 horsemen travel the countryside begging for—and catching—ingredients for the communal gumbo.
“Every year I offer 15 or 20 chickens,” says Bert Charlie, a Mamou resident, handing a hen to a masked man during last year’s celebration. “They need something to eat.”
“Merci beaucoup,” says Ryan Ardoin, 31, expressing thanks in the language of his French-speaking forefathers.
The partying procession, which includes a band playing Cajun music and an entourage of Mardi Gras revelers, journeys from house to house collecting donated chickens, sausage and rice, and entertaining spectators along the 12-mile route that begins and ends in downtown Mamou. Like modern-day jesters, the men sing, dance and perform acrobatic tricks, including headstands on horseback and back flips off wagons.
Le Courir de Mardi Gras (or the run of Fat Tuesday), which has been a part of Louisiana’s Acadian culture since the 1800s, took a hiatus when many of the local young men left to fight during World War II. In 1950, some Mamou residents resurrected the tradition, which today is maintained by a handful of communities in rural Acadiana, including the nearby towns of Church Point (pop. 4,756) and Eunice (pop. 11,499).
Mamou prides itself on having the only “traditional” Courir de Mardi Gras because only males 16 and older are allowed to ride horses and chase chickens during the annual jaunt, which has roots in ancient Europe when peasants were permitted one day a year to beg from and mock royalty. “It’s always been men,” says Kenneth Mouiller, 43, a captain of the Mamou Mardi Gras Association. “It was the tradition before us and we want to keep it that way if we can.”
The daylong event concludes with an awards ceremony on Main Street honoring the best costume, best dancer, best chicken chaser and best overall performer, and an evening meal of sausage and chicken gumbo at the American Legion Hall.
Mamou’s annual courir is the culmination of a four-day, almost non-stop celebration of Cajun music, dancing and food before Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and penance observed by Catholics and members of some other Christian churches before Easter.
Last year’s celebration featured cracklins (fried pork skins), boudin (rice and pork sausage), chicken gumbo and barbecued pork sandwiches as well as a headline performance by accordionist Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, a band that tours the nation playing Cajun music.
Named for the mammoth prairie that surrounds the town, Mamou is a farming community with a large population of French-speaking Acadians (or Cajuns), whose ancestors immigrated to Louisiana from Canada in the 1700s. Flooded rice fields and crawfish ponds dot the landscape and Mamou’s Main Street features a half dozen stores that sell masks, beads and souvenirs during Mardi Gras.
While the Courir de Mardi Gras is Mamou’s signature celebration, the town remains a stronghold of Cajun culture year-round. The town, which bills itself as the Cajun Music Capital of the World, is home to Fred’s Lounge, which hosts a live radio broadcast of Cajun music each Saturday morning via KPVI-AM, a station based in nearby Ville Platte.
“Fred’s is first on the list to have a good time,” says manager Sue Vasseur, 75, as dancers two-step across the crowded floor.
On stage, Don Fontenot and les Amis de La Louisiane perform “The Mardi Gras Song,” whose lyrics tell the time-honored story of the Fat Tuesday horseback run, a Mamou tradition that’s as much a part of Cajun culture as a bowl of chicken gumbo.