Louisiana is known for New Orleans, and New Orleans is known, of course, for its Mardi Gras. The sumptuous parade floats, the infamous bead throwing, the bacchanalian wildness on Bourbon Street…all of these things we can easily conjure up in our minds. But what about out in Cajun country? How do they celebrate Mardi Gras in the Louisiana prairie, hours away from The Big Easy? On this Fat Tuesday, we discovered a whole different kind of Mardi Gras celebration. One full of Cajun music, chicken chasing, pig tackling, waltzing, and beautiful respect for the traditions and customs of the prairie.
But before we found ourselves immersed in fiddles, accordions, and gumbo, our incredible hosts Jeff and Cecette Bassett warmed us up the night before with crawfish fettucini and a Mardi Gras parade in Lafayette. Jeff taught us the secret to catching beads but we learned the hard way that when it comes to those strings of plastic beads, it’s every man for himself. But we had an excuse; we had driven through the night from WV.
The atmosphere Tuesday morning was dramatically different. Instead of paved streets, toy vendors, RV’s, cop cars, and high school marching bands, we found ourselves surrounded by crawfish farms, rice fields, backcountry houses, and 300 people ready to sing and dance and party at 8am in the middle of nowhere. At this Mardi Gras, there would be no bead throwing, there would be no floats, and there would be no parade queens. In fact, there weren’t even any spectators, except for a handful of locals in lawn chairs. The celebration was in participating, not in spectating. And so for that, the one major rule was you had to show up in costume, otherwise you would face whipping and public condemnation. The key element in these outfits was fringe. The more fringe the better. We never figured out what fashion precedent these costumes were based off of but it sort of looks like a KKK pajama party. Masks are encouraged, and some sort of hat seemed requisite. Amazingly, we had all that covered. Jeff and Cecette miraculously appropriated some authentic Cajun party suits for us, even bought us masks, and we were in like Flynn.
From the moment we arrived, we knew we were in for something special. Jeff and Cecette drove us to the house where everyone was gathering and it felt a bit like going to school on the first day with mom and dad. We didn’t know anyone; we felt a little embarrassed about our clothes. And we didn’t know quite what to expect. But within minutes we had made friends with Holly and Grease who made us swig cinnamon whiskey and holler “Hot Damn!” If whiskey is good for one thing, it’s breaking the ice. So there we were, two Virginia boys in pointed caps, cameras on our shoulders, sour mash on our breath, and not a clue what the morning and afternoon lay in store. But it was immediately apparent that a day full of beautiful pictures was ahead of us.
What ensued was likely one of the most wonderful days AFP has experienced yet, and ranks up there with one of the best days of our lives. Very simply we just walked through the Cajun countryside like some sort of tribe, a band of gypsies, a family of bejeweled strangers, dancing and singing to songs from the Cajun canon. Ok, maybe “simply” isn’t the right word. At every third house or so we passed, the entire caravan stopped and would beg for a live chicken. A resident from the house would then hold up the animal, inciting the mob into a frenzy, and then launch the bird into the air setting off a furious dash to catch it. If the chase wasn’t long enough there might be a 2nd or 3rd chicken throwing. We must have done this seven times and after each one the band on the wagon would start again and dancing would recommence. Slowly, we made our way across grass fields, dirt roads, through cemeteries, and eventually back to the house where it all began for a community gumbo and dance. Perhaps it was the cinnamon whiskey that started the day. Perhaps it was first days of warm weather we had experienced in months. Perhaps it was that infectious cajun fiddling. But there was a warmth to this day that will be hard to forget.
If you’re one to usually skim the photos, please take your time with this slide show. It’s fascinating. So much so that we purposefully left our written descriptions to a minimum. Colorful, strange, mind blowing–all words that we use to try to describe the day.
We owe a huge thank you to Cecette and Jeff for opening their house to a couple of strangers and taking us in like we were their own children! The king cakes and crawfish boil on our last night completed our authentic Louisiana adventure.
Cecette with her puppies Bijou and Zoe behind their beautiful house.