By Meryl Pearlstein
I didn’t know what to expect when I saw the guinea hen flung into the air. It seemed like a random act of serendipity, perhaps instigated by celebrating Mardi Gras just a bit too early. And then it all happened at once, a swarm of harlequin-like characters chasing after it until the poor animal was stopped in its tracks.
Masked adults dressed in conical capuchon hats with matching top and bottom and making a sort of Pucci-esque fashion statement surrounded me, some on horseback, others walking, and some in trucks that formed a procession to the tune of the traditional, inspirational Cajun Mardi Gras song.
If this sounds like a Federico Fellini movie, it isn’t. Rather, this is one of the Cajun customs that make the Lafayette, Louisiana region a joy to experience. Called the Courir de Mardi Gras, the colorful run that I participated in in Eunice dates back to medieval times and involves throwing a live bird (or multiple birds) in the air, with a goal of catching one to make dinner. This is followed by a long procession led by a cape-wearing Capitaine. Multiple stops along the route ensure that a perfect gumbo will be created as participants silently beg for “cinq sous pour les Mardi Gras” (a nickel) to buy ingredients, between beer and bathroom breaks.
Had you been watching “Black Mirror” on a Tuesday evening rather than viewing this scene firsthand on a Tuesday morning, this might not have seemed so far-fetched. But walking in the dirt and running across a muddy field after a chicken felt like entering a world of fantasy, one that was a blur of color and some intoxication. In fact, the entire Eunice Cajun Country Mardi Gras experience was downright magical with families waving on revelers and runners as they passed. I guess you could call it magically charming. I certainly did. And it was completely different from the Mardi Gras I had experienced in New Orleans decades prior.
Charming is also how I’d characterize the people I met in the Lafayette- St. Landry Parish region. Friendly, gracious, helpful and ready to celebrate. Although Mardi Gras is certainly a big draw for the area, you can visit this part of Southwestern Louisiana any time of the year to capture the flavor of the people and their traditions, and enjoy of big bowl of Southern hospitality. Or come back for the popular Festivale International two months later, a weekend of free concerts and performance.
But that wasn’t the only kind of bowl that kept me smiling. Bowls of creamy bisque, seafood-laced gumbo and simmering étoufée became my new friends. I learned about roux, the mix of flour and oil that adds the richness to stews like fraisseurs, a version made with pig organ meat. I was curious about why there was such an emphasis on regional cuisine in Lafayette. The French-Canadian roots in the area were certainly there but that didn’t explain the creativity and fiercely artisanal nature of the menus. The distinctiveness of the dishes seemed to be born from a sense of pride, of sharing and enjoyment, with a small dash of survival and making do in an area isolated from other parts of the country (in earlier times, of course). In that “a ha” moment, I knew I’d found a new foodie paradise.
Over the course of the five-day Mardi Gras celebration, I stuffed my face with everything that spoke Louisiana to me: delicious chicken and sausage gumbo at the Blue Dog Cafe; Randol’s bright red crawfish by the pound, boiled in Old Bay with a touch of heat to remind you that TABASCO pepper sauce was born on nearby Avery Island; boudin balls for breakfast instead of sausage at The French Press accompanied by giant slabs of candied bacon; New Orleans-style poor boys from Old Tyme Grocery so large they could have fed a small family; and just-shucked oysters at Don’s for a perfect pre-parade seafood fix. Locally made rum, Sweet Crude, was the perfect finish.
That was only the beginning of my feeding frenzy. I participated in another food-centric experience intrinsic to Cajun Mardi Gras, the Lundi Gras Boucherie in Lakeview Park in Eunice, where chefs from Louisiana and nearby states come to show off their expertise in cooking up every last bit of a newly slaughtered pig. I was already a cracklins fan from a recent trip to Lake Charles, but here I discovered a new-found affinity for backbone stew, ponce (a sausage-like creation similar to haggis – eat it, don’t think about it), and ribs that neatly fell off the bone when washed down by an Abita Purple Haze or Turbodog, two of the area’s best beers.
I didn’t worry, though, because I knew I’d be dancing soon and I’d work off the calories — music is equally as rich as the culinary culture here. Louisiana is the birthplace of a distinctively Creole jazz-blue fusion known as zydeco. Zydeco meanders from tunes that can sometimes seem like they belong in Tennessee, rather than in Louisiana, to accordion-and-washboard ones laced with Cajun French language so fine-tuned to Louisiana that there’s no chance that any Parisian could understand it. You can’t help but get on your feet when a zydeco band kicks into gear, even if you’re not familiar with the dance moves that accompany it. And that’s exactly what you do at the Boucherie; you grab your partner and sidle over to the dance floor under the oscillating disco chicken (seriously).
It seems that everyone in Lafayette has been dancing all their lives – just look at the afternoon fais-do-do (Cajun dance party) in places like Vermilionville, a recreated Acadian village complete with a Performance Hall. There’s no shortage of music venues in St. Landry Parish from the Vermilionville dance hall to stand-alone clubs or event spaces like Warehouse 535. Music is an all-day affair, starting with a jazz (or zydeco) brunch at Abacus, for example, then two-stepping through the afternoon fais-do-do and ending with an evening boy-meets-girl meetup, perhaps at The Grouse Room to the tunes of the rockin’ Jamie Bergeron & The Kickin’ Cajuns.
If you thought I’d forgotten about the parades so characteristic of Mardi Gras, that’s an impossibility in the Lafayette area. Telltale remnants of floats and parties past stay visible months after Fat Tuesday is long gone with beads dangling from trees and light poles. I was fortunate to experience the excitement of the parades on many levels, literally, from a walking parade following the Krewe de Canaille through the streets of Lafayette, to an evening float parade by the Krewe de Bonaparte where I was the joyful recipient of pounds and pounds of beads and prized doubloons from atop a canopied platform. My turn as mischief-maker came a day later when I was invited to be one of the “pitchers” on a bi-level float, targeting eager kids of all ages who awaited my throws and chided me with posters saying, “Hit this! Don’t throw like a girl” or “It’s my birthday. Throw me something mistuh.”
The energy of these experiences was infectious. Festivals like Mardi Gras are pure delight and Lafayette does them right Everyone is excited, happy and acting as a community. I felt blessed to be part of it, even for a short while. In a yin and yang way, too, I succumbed to the serene bliss of earlier and easier times, soaking up the Southern atmosphere while paddling among cypress trees and Spanish moss on Lake Martin with the Bayou Teche Experience, and while visiting the Jungle Gardens on Avery Island, where alligators meander by groves of camellias and azaleas, and a 900-year-old Buddha sits in a pavilion overlooking the Chinese Pond. I was captivated by the myriad Asian sculptures placed along the shore of Lake Peigneur adjacent to the semi-tropical Rip Van Winkle gardens and the gracious Joseph Jefferson Mansion, a place where President Grover Cleveland took his siestas under a sprawling 350-year-old oak tree. Dining at the nearby Jefferson Café completed the dream sequence for me, where my rapture when enjoying a Cajun and Creole meal of seafood bisque, shrimp remoulade and pecan pie convinced me that I might have been a Southerner in a previous life.
What truly makes Lafayette’s Cajun Country Mardi Gras special is that despite the non-stop activity, the crowds (albeit much smaller and less crazy than its bigger sibling New Orleans), and the seemingly endless food and drink, the underlying sentiment is happiness wrapped in a sunny spirit that spills over to each visitor. Lafayette was recently named the happiest city in America by the Wall Street Journal’s marketwatch.com. And I can sure see why. I can’t wait to come back, and maybe this time I’ll get one of those crazy harlequin-like, pajama costume ensembles. I bought the mask, now I just need the outfit and maybe a horse.
If you go, stay at the conveniently located Doubletree by Hilton Lafayette. The hotel has a gym, executive floor for private breakfast and hors d’oeuvres, a pool, and it’s a wonderful oasis with a bar that serves some pretty nice wines as well. Don’t miss the tour of the TABASCO factory on Avery Island where you can purchase many versions of the 150-old sauce that are unique to the area and enjoy some pretty creative TABASCO art. You’ll find the best King Cakes to celebrate Mardi Gras at Poupart Bakery, and you can wash them down with a coffee and ice cream (yes, that’s a perfect combination) at the only Borden’s Ice Cream Shoppe in the world, opened in 1940. If you’re pining for something new-fangled, Dat Dog, a hot dog mecca, even has a version that comes with toppings in purple, green and yellow, the colors of Mardi Gras.
You can find lots of information about Cajun Mardi Gras and Lafayette’s year-long schedule of events at www.LafayetteTravel.com.
Photos by Meryl Pearlstein.