A family friendly Mardi Gras. Seriously?
When most folks think Mardi Gras, they envision New Orleans, drunken parties, rowdy crowds.
But almost every city, town and wide spot in the road along the Gulf Coast seems to have its own version of this pre-Lent party. And Lake Charles, across the state from New Orleans, bills itself as not only the second largest but also the friendliest Mardi Gras.
We’re talking nine parades, a chicken run with waist high tykes scrambling across the landscape after running roosters, couples in matching feather costumes, sweet cherubs in party dresses.
And, oh yes, Cajun food.
But while you’re in the area there’s lots more ... eco tours to see incredible numbers of birds, gator rescue operations, a rum factory, restored plantations.
For those who don’t know, Mardi Gras also called Fat Tuesday, is all about partying down before the sacrifices of Lent. Parties, liquor, costumes, really rich food ... all those things you’re supposed to deny yourself in coming weeks as a pious person. What became a legal holiday in Louisiana in 1875 has its roots in ancient Rome where wild pagan parties were folded into the new Christian faith.
Lake Charles, meanwhile, wanted a kinder, gentler version of all this revelry.
The parades are major. If you’re on a float, you toss beads. If you’re on the curb, you catch them.
Ah yes, the bead tossing. I asked. I got answers. Lots of them. The one that made the most sense was it’s a modern version of a pagan ritual of throwing flour as thanks to the gods for surviving yet another winter.
Sounds good to me.
Meanwhile, my introduction to this was the Children’s Parade, where I got a chance to ride the Buccaneer float with pirate Ken, who showed up with his own coat, feathered hat and huge rings on each finger. Our one float had 50 boxes of plastic beads, each holding 60 dozen strands per box. And we were only one of some 100 floats in this parade.
The beads all said “made in China.” Obviously, Mardi Gras single handedly supports the Chinese economy.
As for the bead tossing ... well, who knew flinging handfuls of beads to tiny, outstretched hands could be so much fun. A rainbow of purple, green and gold ... the official Mardi Gras colors ... darkened the sky.
A few days later, this time at night, we were the catchers. There’s a trick to snagging a strand in mid-air without being beaned on the noggin, though I never did quite figure it out.
Between parades was the Royal Gala at the Lake Charles Civic Center. Anyone can come. A few dollars gets you a seat in the bleachers to watch 50-plus krewes strut around the arena.
A krewe is actually a social group. Originally only men, now couples and some for just women, they hold parties throughout the year, do charity projects but most of all, concoct out of this world costumes for Mardi Gras.
One story is the word krewe was coined in the early 19th century by an organization calling themselves Ye Mistick Krewe of Comus as an archaic affectation for crew and over time, it became the most common term for a Mardi Gras organization.
It’s the feathers, though. Yikes, there’s a LOT of feathers. One woman, who weighs all of 108 lbs, was being strapped into her 35 pound array of four-foot-tall, blinding white plumage. These things are worth thousands of dollars, take weeks to assemble and no, they are NOT worn outside on parade floats. Way too fragile.
Back in the arena, the announcer introduced each krewe...a parade of delicate feathers, scary dragons that towered 20 feet, Gumbeaux the local alligator mascot, movie themes…and yes, Star Wars. It was a furious march of colors.
But honestly, my favorite event of the week was the chicken run.
Iowa (pronounced I-O-Way) is this tiny town of maybe 3,000 people that is part of the Lake Charles area. The chicken run has been tradition for nearly 40 years. This year, as it has for many decades, the day started with Mary Victorian, 80, stirring a huge pot on a stove in the local community center.
The roux (a secret mix of flour and fat), augmented by broth, was bubbling away. The idea was we would go out on floats, stopping along the way, dancing and singing for bags of ingredients that would go into Mary’s gumbo. Onions, bell peppers, celery (the holy trinity of gumbo), along with sausage, chicken, spices.
“We’ll feed 500 today,” Mary told me.
But the main event was the chicken run itself.
Rodney Victorian had his prize roosters in tow. At random houses along the way, he strutted about, holding one of the handsome birds high in the air. Oddly, considering these birds have done this before, they were amazingly calm about it all.
That is, until Rodney flung the bird of the moment into the air and total mayhem followed as a dozen pint size kids scrambled after it.
The first speedy little fowl made a run for the woods, making his bid to return to the wild. The next birds, in a blur of knees, sneakers and hands, were caught, usually by some agile 10-year-old who would stand there, shy, proud grin on his face, bird clutched to his chest.
No, the birds weren’t destined for the pot. Athletic roosters don’t make good eating. Rodney would care for them till their run next year.
When the week was over, I found myself waiting to board the jet back to Seattle with other Seattleites -- taciturn descendants of Vikings who don’t look at strangers, much less casually talk to them. I was already missing the warmth and outgoing friendliness of the south ... a place where total strangers say good morning and hi and how are you today and wait for an answer because they really want to know.
Mardi Gras is scheduled 47 days before Easter and can occur on any Tuesday from February 3 through March 9. In 2018, it’s Feb. 13. Parties are scheduled leading up to that date.
In addition to the partying, there’s a lot more to do and visit, especially if you drive the coast back east towards New Orleans:
MANSIONS - Many mansions from Civil War times have been restored and are open to visitors. Some tours even include their current residents. Perhaps the most fascinating is Oaklawn Manor, a Greek Revival plantation in Franklin, LA, whose twin claims to fame are its use as backdrop for the 1975 movie Drowning Pool starring Paul Newman and a chance to meet its current resident, former Governor Mike Foster, who at 85 still enjoys coming down for a chat that is a time warp glimpse into another era. Foster talks fondly of a tiny Confederate flag rescued from “alien hands” up north and his disdain for former Governor Huey Long, who he views as a socialist. His home is overflowing with antiques, art and, especially, four-foot-tall original Audubon books filled with original sketches. http://www.oaklawnmanor.com
ECO TOURS - Folks here don’t think it’s strange that an oil company runs eco tours on reclaimed wetlands, but for outsiders, this is a fascinating look at co-existence. Sweet Lake Land and Oil built a dike around 500 acres of marsh to keep it flooded year around. And now, it’s home to 400 species of birds who come through each spring, sometimes in flocks so thick, they blacken the sky. Grosse Savanne Eco Tours take visitors out regularly. Late spring is the best time for birds. http://www.grossesavanne-ecotours.com
SWAMP TOURS - Among the many is the curiously named Annie Miller’s Son’s Swamp and Marsh Tour (think the History Channel show Swamp People). Good ‘ole boy Jimmy Miller will take you down the bayou to view birds and, especially his favorite gator, LollyPop. Along the way are anhingas, cormorants, bald eagles and a lot of local color. After, grab an authentic Cajun lunch (fried just about anything) at Bayou Delight Restaurant where Jimmy’s boat docks. http://www.annie-miller.com/
OIL DRILLING PLATFORM TOUR - A chance to visit a real (retired) oil drilling platform, now docked in Morgan City, LA. Built in the early ‘50s, the affectionately named Mr. Charlie, was the first transportable, submersible drilling rig. Regular tours include a chance to see crew quarters, the mess, lounge and all sorts of techie stuff while it’s all explained. Even better, if an offshore crew is being trained or a Navy Seal wannabe course is happening, you get to watch. http://www.rigmuseum.com/index.html
ALLIGATOR RESCUE CENTER - There are towns here with twice as many alligators as people. But baby gators, also, are sometimes abandoned by their mothers. Enter the Gator Chateau at the Jeff Davis Parish tourist office in Jennings, LA at, of all things, the Lousiana Oil & Gas Park. There’s someone to tell you everything gator and a chance to hold the little ones. The babies are fed soy pellets while they’re of handling age. Later comes their fave, chicken. And hopefully, when they’re released at around age five, they will have totally forgotten snuggling with people. http://www.jeffdavis.org/tourism/attractions/gator-chateau.html
LAKE CHARLES - http://www.visitlakecharles.org/
CAJUN COAST VISITORS & CONVENTION BUREAU - http://www.cajuncoast.com/
HOUMA AREA CVB - http://www.houmatravel.com/
LOUISIANA COAST PHOTO DIARY - https://goo.gl/photos/WNCbtvi3Uo3QVwQw6
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