The Capitaines and the Chickens

Boudreaux’s been much on my mind of late.

In 2012, not long after I’d written a thing or two about chickens in art and literature, he emailed a suggestion: “Cher, you want the complete chicken experience, come to Cajun country for a real Mardi Gras. They dance for chickens over here.”

As proof, he sent along Pat Mire’s documentary, Dance for a Chicken. After watching the hour-long film with a certain degree of astonishment, I tucked the link into my bookmarks and resolved to make my own run to the Louisiana prairie to witness the celebrations.

A year later, and the year after that, I remembered Boudreaux’s email only after it was too late to make plans. Each year, I watched the film again and thought,”Next year.”

This year, I remembered, and made some inquiries. After a few phone calls, a conversation or two, and a text, I had the name and address of a Church Point family willing to host a visitor from Texas. I called a friend who lives in Louisiana’s bayou country and said, “Pack your bags. We’ve got chickens waiting.” (more…)

Published in: on February 21, 2015 at 11:59 am  Comments (92)  
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La Danse de Mardi Gras

Say “Mardi Gras,” and it’s almost guaranteed: most people will think first of New Orleans. Other cities have their celebrations, but only in New Orleans has the combination of beads, bare breasts, fancy-dress balls, beer and Bourbon Street been elevated to high art.

In Cajun country, there’s no lack of beer and beads, but the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras at the center of the celebration has a slightly different emphasis: community, Capitaines, charity and chickens. (Yes, chickens. More about that later.)

In places like Iota, Church Point, Eunice and Mamou, the Mardi gras (when used as a plural for participants, it’s pronounced “grahz”) prepare for the courir, or run, under the direction of their Capitaine.  On horseback or in wagons, they visit surrounding farms, collecting ingredients for the communal gumbo that will be served later that night.

In exchange for rice, potatoes, or even a chicken, the Mardi gras frolic for the entertainment of the farmer and his family, singing a variation of a song known variously as  La Danse de Mardi Gras or La [Vieille] Chanson de Mardi Gras. A mainstay in Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations, and often heard in dance halls or concerts, the song may be the oldest in the Cajun repertoire.
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Published in: on February 14, 2015 at 10:37 am  Comments (91)  
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Winds of Change, Part III – Waving Goodbye

Indianola, Texas ~ December 2014

Six months before the German brig Johann Dethardt dropped anchor in Matagorda Bay, leaving its complement of immigrant passengers to fend for themselves, Samuel Morse was in Washington, D.C., sending the first public telegraph message to Alfred Vail, in Baltimore.

The message, chosen for Morse by Annie Ellsworth, daughter of the Governor of Connecticut, read, “What hath God wrought?” It was a question residents of Indianola surely would ask themselves, before it all was over. (more…)

Winds of Change, Part II -The Travelers

View of Indianola by Helmuth Holtz, 1860, from aboard the Barque Texana.  Courtesy The San Jacinto Museum of History, Houston. (Click to enlarge)

Tucked into the rigging of the barque Texana, Helmuth Holtz sketched for us his view of Indianola, Texas.

Behind the town lies Powderhorn Lake. A tangle of bayous traces the beach front, hinting at future roads. The variety of vessels spread across the water is impressive, as are the wharves built to accomodate them.

To the left lies the Morgan Steamship Company wharf. By 1850, just a year after Indian Point became Indianola, Morgan’s company supported three sailings a week from Galveston and two from New Orleans. By 1860, the company had secured a monopoly on coastal shipping in Texas, and could provide everything a new town required: lumber and liquor from New Orleans; garden seeds from Long Island; dressmaking supplies from Baltimore.
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Published in: on January 20, 2015 at 11:44 am  Comments (87)  
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Winds of Change, Part I – That Prescient Name

Detail from a painting of the lost city of Indianola, Texas ~ Shannon Salyer
Courtesy Calhoun County Museum (Click image to view the complete painting)

Today, the privilege of naming a community seems reserved for real estate developers. The names they choose for subdivisions, gated communities, or urban high-rise housing — Candlewick, Pickwick Village, The Towers — function primarily as marketing tools. While the names may reflect an area’s history, or a neighborhood’s geographic location, often they do not.

In times past, residents named their own nascent communities. If contention over the choice arose among the citizenry,  or if conflict developed between a town and the Postal Service, the history of the naming process could become as interesting as the history of the town itself.

Some places changed their name so often even residents could forget where they lived. In New Hampshire, the Plantation of Penney Cook became Penney Cook; then Pennacook; then Rumford; then Concord. In Arizona, Swilling’s Mill became Hellinwig Mill; then Mill City; then East Phoenix. Finally, the name we know today — Phoenix — became permanent.

Some names were obvious choices. Washington, Franklin, Madison, and Jackson rose to prominence as Americans honored men who contributed to the nation’s founding. On the other hand, Oxford, Paris, New London, and Winchester became almost as popular. It’s easy to imagine a little nostalgia in the naming process: perhaps even a longing to be as well-regarded as more historic cities. (more…)

Published in: on January 12, 2015 at 7:56 pm  Comments (80)  
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