Everyone knows the craziness of Bourbon Street during New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. But there’s another Mardi Gras – a rural hidden gem – that takes place in Central Louisiana’s Cajun country. It’s called the Courir de Gras, and is focused on begging for the components to make a communal gumbo, the iconic comfort food of the region. I learned about this revelry this past Fall while visiting New Orleans.
The Courir de Mardi Gras is a version of a centuries-old begging procession which began in rural Medieval France as a precursor to Lent. The area of central Louisiana, known as Acadiana, was settled by a diaspora of French Catholics expelled from northeastern Canada by the British in the 1600s.
The first Mardi Gras in the Gulf Coastal region is tied to explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, founder of the first permanent French settlement in Louisiana. In 1699 Iberville and his men, realizing it was Mardi Gras as they arrived along the Mississippi River Delta, drank all the booze they had in the canoes and donned animal pelts as costumes.
Over time, Louisiana inherited two distinct versions of Mardi Gras from French settlers. The more commonly known urban one, is what happens in New Orleans on Bourbon Street. But in the rural version, or Courir de Mardi Gras, the procession does the begging, from the people they’re visiting. The Courir, or run, visits farmhouses, connecting with neighbors and gathering ingredients for a chicken gumbo. Onions, flour or rice may be offered to the beggars, or revelers, but the most prized donation is a chicken. The catching of this chicken is an intense and exhilarating contest and happens at the end of the run.
The Mardi “Grawers” don a homemade mask, usually with long pointy nose, and a conical hat, called in French, a capuchin, meant to mock French noblewomen. Participants can also wear mitres or mortarboards, to deride the church or the highly educated. Accompanied by an accordion, a fiddle, and a tit fer (an iron triangle) revelers sing a traditional tune, begging the man or lady of the house for the gumbo ingredients. Revelers kneel on the lawns of neighbors and sing in French, “Donnez-moi quelque chose pour le Mardi Gras!” (“Give me something for Mardi Gras!”) Throws, like nickels and granola bars typically come flying out. Then the three musicians begin playing Cajun music and revelers dance, likely tearing up the modest family’s lawn.
Vintage courir reveler costumes and masks on display at the Louisiana State Museum at the Presbytere, on Jackson Square.
The Run is led by the Capitaine of the Mardi Gras, sort of a Creole-Napoleon, who’s costume typically includes a two pointed hat, a captain’s jacket and a whip. Offering instructions before the hundreds of costumed, masked revelers before the start the run, he acts as the MC of the festivity. Cautioning revelers not to leave beer bottles on people’s lawns and warning that no ugly women are allowed in the run, only pretty ones. And, if you’re ugly, make sure you wear two masks! After the instruction masked participants on horseback, foot or trailer make their way through the community begging for components of the Gumbo.
The last ingredient, and the highlight of the entire celebration, is the chicken. In some towns, like Chataigne, after the run, organizers prepare a ceremonial 20-foot pole with a caged hen on top. Someone climbs to the top and begins greasing the metal. Then, a scrum of revelers begin to form the base of a primitive human pyramid. Usually, after a day of drinking during the house-to-house run, nobody is coherent enough to structure the activity, and people climb up and over each other to get the chicken, many sliding down the pole before reaching its apex. Finally someone reaches the top, rescues the hen and the run ends.
Sometimes a last stop on the run before heading back to town is the local cemetery. The revelers will do this to pay homage to Dennis McGee, one of the most famous Cajun fiddle players. The band serenades the dead, usually with songs like “Ma Chere Bebe Creole,” and there is a speech about the importance of ancestors and traditions.
When the course (another French word for the run) ends, the revelers return to town, where residents share the day’s bounty in a massive gumbo and enjoy a dance, and Cajun music, which ends promptly at midnight, the beginning of Lent.
In addition to the French-Canadian settlers, free African Americans and slaves who introduced African based traditions of processions and masking also added to the courir. African American communities in Acadiana also celebrate their own versions of the courir. Increasing Americanization and governmental suppression of the sometimes rowdy celebration resulted in the decline of the courir in many places by World War II – similar to the suppression of German American festivals in Cincinnati post World War I. While such communities as Basile and Duralde maintained their courirs, others like Mamou and Eunice revived theirs in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today about two dozen south Louisiana Cajun and Creole communities – Mamou, Ville Platte, Grand Praire, L’Anse de Prien Noir, Eunice, Church Point, Iota-Tee Mammou, L’Anse Maigre, Oberlin, Basile, Kinder, Hathawya, Evangeline, Jennings, Elton, Lacassine, Choupiquie and Gheens – celebrate Mardi Gras with a courir. To many today, this rural version of Mardi Gras is like going to church. It’s a rejection of the corporate, big business Mardi Gras that happens along the coast. Away from the craziness of Bourbon Street in a rural field, the courir allows one to have a sort of Carnival epiphany, where it’s easier to reflect on the core tenets of Mardi Grad, the Lenten value of community and the abundance of life.
Each town’s Courir de Gras is special and has a unique twist. In communities like Mamou, Iota, Elton, Church Point, Faquetaigue and Soileau, you’ll find food and events more Cajun than the names of the towns. In Basile, there is a children’s courir held a few days before the traditional Fat Tuesday one. In Tee Mamou, there’s a ladies-only one. If running isn’t your thing, you can try your legs out with a little barn dancing in Lakeview Park north of Eunice.
In Eunice, the fun starts on the Saturday before Mardi Gras at the Historic Liberty Theatre where the history and traditions of the Courir de Gras are explained. Then on Sunday, the family-friendly fun begins with music, crafts and an old-time boucherie where you can eat just about every Cajun dish your heart desires, from boudin and cracklins to backbone stew. Tap your feet to live music on Monday and then come back on Fat Tuesday when Eunice really gets cranking. There’s an entire festival happening downtown while the Courir de Mardi Gras collects the ingredient list for the gumbo.
Having spent almost every college spring break in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, I think I prefer this rural version much more. It’s more about tradition and ancestors and of course its central to local comfort food. What better way celebrate Mardi Gras than a run to create communal food?