NEW ORLEANS — In New Orleans, revelers ride fancy floats, wear elaborate costumes and toss trinkets and beads by the tons to eager — and often inebriated — crowds.
But along south Louisiana bayous and in Cajun communities far from the Big Easy, Mardi Gras is celebrated a little differently. There, boats are gaily decorated, revelers two-step to Cajun and zydeco bands, and many partake in communal gumbos in a more family oriented atmosphere.
“It’s Mardi Gras in the country, and it’s a lot of fun,” said Celeste Gomez, a Cajun country native who also serves as director of the St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission.
The Mardi Gras custom, brought to Louisiana by its French colonists, evolved a bit differently in melting-pot New Orleans than in the fishing communities of coastal parishes, where the French language sometimes still can be heard.
But the common thread remains: Raise a helluva party before the solemn season of Lent puts the kibosh on the revelry.
In rural communities, revelers take to the water, parading decorated boats that on other days might hunt alligators in swamps or ply the Gulf of Mexico for seafood. And if it’s warm enough (Mardi Gras season weather can be fickle in Louisiana), they may don bathing suits instead of costumes.
“Some boats are decorated in pirate themes, some with Mardi Gras colors and purple, green and gold balloons,” said Leah Mullins, manager at Tin Lizzy’s restaurant and bar in Springfield, La., a popular spot for watching the Tickfaw boat parade, which is held every Saturday before Mardi Gras about 60 miles northwest of New Orleans. Tin Lizzy’s has a large dock and patio area fronting the Tickfaw River.
“One year there was an old paddle-wheel boat and everybody on it was dressed up in Southern belle dresses and costumes,” Mullins said. “Every year there’s something different.”
CAJUN CUSTOMS IN ACADIANA
Just a few hours by car on Interstate 10 from the raunchiness of New Orleans, visitors will find the Cajun customs of the Acadiana region.
In Lafayette, the heart of Cajun country about 150 miles west of New Orleans, Mardi Gras is a days-long festival of music and revelry that culminates with a street parade through downtown. The parade ends at Cajun Field with rides, music and food vendors.
Just beyond Lafayette in the town of Eunice, Mardi Gras includes days of live music, costume-making and an old-fashioned boucherie — a celebration in which Cajuns butcher a pig to make pork dishes like backbone stew, hog head cheese, barbecue pork sandwiches, boudin (a sausage made with rice) and cracklin, fried pork rind.
The Eunice boucherie is held the Sunday before Mardi Gras.
COURIR DE MARDI GRAS: THE FAT TUESDAY RUN
Courir de Mardi Gras is a run that starts at sunrise on Fat Tuesday. It originated as a way to collect ingredients for a communal gumbo, with horseback riders stopping at farms for rice, chicken, onions and Andouille sausage. Today, the courir is mostly ceremonial fun, with 1,000 participants on foot, horseback and in trailers traveling from farm to farm over 10 miles of countryside. Some chase a chicken or two for laughs while making merry along the way, but the communal gumbo gets cooking long before riders return to town.
“You’re overindulging and having a good time before Lent,” said Gomez, a native of Eunice who promotes Courir de Mardi Gras through her work with the tourist commission. “It’s my favorite time of year. Visitors always come in thinking they’ll just be spectators but end up being a part of it.”
Presentations about the courir and other Cajun country Mardi Gras traditions are offered at the Jean Lafitte National Park & Preserve-Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice.
COSTUMES AND LODGING
Unlike the glitzy, beaded costumes seen in New Orleans, Courir de Mardi Gras costumes are much simpler, often made of scrap fabric and ribbon, Gomez said. Generations ago, costumes were made from repurposed cloth sacks from goods like flour, sugar and coffee, and face masks were made from old window screens.
“It’s nothing fancy,” she said. “People out here didn’t have a lot of money to splurge for a costume, so they made their own with whatever they had around. Many still do.”
The costumes include tall cone-shaped hats and bells “so people on the farms can hear you coming,” Gomez said.
Gomez said that while there are chain hotels in the area, locally-owned establishments like L’acadie Inn or Le Village Guesthouse, a bed and breakfast, offer a more immersive experience.
“When you stay with locals, you get to hear their stories and hear about the history of our culture here,” she said. “It’s a much more authentic experience, and they can help you get a costume put together on short notice.”