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.” Continue reading
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.
Forecasters in the north still are posting occasional frost warnings and it’s not yet time for Alaska to be awash in wildflowers, but the thawing’s nearly complete. Winter’s gone. Folks are out and about and, in the South, we’ve arrived at the very heart of festival season.
In Texas, Bluegrass and Bluebonnets already has taken place. In Louisiana, the Acadian Festival in St. Martinsville, the Bayou Teche Bear Festival and the Balfa Cajun/Creole Heritage Week are pleasant memories. Still to come are assorted strawberry festivals, New Orleans’ Creole Tomato Festival, the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles in Lafayette, Church Point’s Buggy Fest and one of the best combinations of food and music in the world, the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival.
Events like last weekend’s Mullet Toss at the Flora-Bama Lounge, a well-known establishment on the Alabama-Florida state line, play to a slightly different crowd. While there’s just as much music and food, there’s often a good bit more liquor and a good bit less clothing. Crowds are friendly at the Flora-Bama, but they’re not necessarily family-friendly, if you get my drift.
On the other hand, the Flora-Bama Mullet Toss shares some qualities common to other festivals. All tend to be historically-rooted and marked by a high level of community involvement. They support community causes, raise money for local organizations and provide inexpensive fun. Like State Fairs and the Fourth of July, they’re as American as apple pie. Continue reading
Standing atop the levee in Butte LaRose, a long, narrow settlement on the western edge of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, my traveling companion and I considered our options. Breaux Bridge and Bayou Teche lay well behind while St. James Parish, home of the Christmas Eve bonfires we’d traveled to see, still lay ahead. Before us stretched an intricate web of bayous, canals, river and swamp, the natural heart of Cajun country.
With a good boat, good weather and a guide raised up in the swamps, we might have been able to thread our way eastward by water, to the other side of the Basin. But for the automobile-bound, topography is destiny. To cross the Atchafalaya and reach the Mississippi levees, we’d have to trade gravel and blacktop for concrete, throwing in a few bridges along the way. “I guess we’ll head north to I-10, take it across the basin and then head south again at Grosse Tête,” I said. “Sounds good to me.” My friend brushed the last crumbs of French bread from her lap. “I was hoping you weren’t going to wait for James Carville to show up on his flaming alligator.” Continue reading
Bidding us adieu at the doorway of Café Des Amis on the Friday before Christmas, Mary Lynn was emphatic. “Remember,” she said, “you’re going to have to rise and shine if you want to get a table for tomorrow’s Zydeco breakfast.”
No innkeeper could be more attentive, more determined than Mary Lynn to help her guests savor their experience in her world, but her words evoked memories even sweeter than the Gâteau de Sirop we enjoyed our first night in Breaux Bridge. “Rise and shine!” my mother would say, drawing back the morning curtains. “Rise and shine!” my dad would echo, coaxing me into the day, tempting me with the promise of adventure.
Cheerful and comfortable, “rise and shine” became a childhood staple, an assurance that the challenges, trials and delights of the day ahead would be well worth the effort of throwing back the covers. With passing years, the phrase took on added weight, becoming a cautionary reminder that just getting up isn’t enough. It’s not enough to plod into the day, slogging through it as though life itself is a burden and an imposition. Being called to get up is one thing. Being willing to shine is another. Continue reading
So. The engineers have calculated, the scientists have pondered, the advisors have advised and the decision-makers have decided. The Bird’s Point levee has been blown apart, the river is being allowed to run free through the Bonnet Carre Spillway and the Morganza Spillway gates are being raised, one by one.
I have no real quarrel with any of this. I’ve followed the decision-making process as best I can, and I understand the rationale. But like so many who claim even the slightest connection to the Atchafalaya, to Cajun country and to the area’s warm, friendly and often downright quirky people, I was immensely saddened to see the waters begin to pour into the Atchafalaya Basin, scattering wildlife and sending its people fleeing to higher ground.
If I’m cheered at all, it’s by the knowledge that a goodly portion of the folks in Louisiana are what my grandfather used to call “britches hitchers”. Faced with a challenge, with adversity or grief, they “hitch up their britches” and get on with it. Jim Delahoussaye, a resident of Butte La Rose, recently mentioned a friend, a catfisherman who’d pulled a rib trying to run lines that were too tight. You can’t always fight, said Jim, reflecting on his friend’s experience. There comes a time when it’s “best to let it go, and start over when this statement by the river has been made.” Continue reading
Before words become language, they exist for us as sound and rhythm and the sounds and rhythms of childhood words endure to the grave. Speak to me the simple phrase “teddy bear” and I see a stuffed animal, its paws limp, the brown plush fur worn away on its left arm, one faceted jet button-eye missing. But repeat the words, give them a lilt and a bit of a meter and you may hear what I hear: the sudden slap of summer jump ropes, the girlish giggles, the hissing intake of breath as a jumper struggles to finish with the rhyme.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Touch the ground.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Show your shoe.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
That will do…
Even after language develops as a tool of communication the sounds endure, resonant and pure, flowing just beneath the surface of consciousness. While reading recently about alligator scutes and alligator gar scales, two natural oddities of Louisiana life, I discovered it wasn’t the meaning of the words but their sound which brought to mind a verse once as familiar as my jump-rope rhymes.
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails and puppy dog tails,
that’s what little boys are made of.
Snips and snails, scutes and scales – it was impossible not to smile. Playing with the words, I listened as scutes and scales transformed themselves into suits and sales and a new version of an old bit of doggerel was born.
What are city folk made of?
Suits and sales and Blackberry tales –
that’s what city folk are made of.
What are Cajun folk made of?
Scutes and scales and crawdaddy tails –
that’s what Cajun folk are made of.
In real life, of course, Cajun folk have a lot of friends. South Louisiana’s intricate web of salt marsh, bayou and swamp is populated by an equally rich and complex mixture of Houma and Chitimacha tribespeople, Cajuns, Creoles and an assortment of Germans, Czechs, Spanish, Irish, and Blacks who showed up, liked what they saw and stayed. The truth is that everyone who loves or lives in Louisiana has a fair portion of scutes, scales and crawdaddy tails in their makeup. The fun lies in discovering what that means. Continue reading