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.
In 1950’s small town Iowa, Mardi Gras was barely a rumor. We’d read now and then of the bead-tossing, the parades, the exotic French Quarter celebrations with their hints of unspeakable, masked misbehavior. But we were midwesterners, with midwestern sensibilities, and gave little thought to those far-away customs.
Even neighbors who traveled to New Orleans seemed to consider Mardi Gras a purely native ritual, disconnected from their experience of the city. Their souvenirs – long, gray-green sweeps of Spanish moss, Hurricane glasses from Pat O’Brien’s, recordings of Sweet Emma Barrett’s piano and Willie Humphrey’s exquisite clarinet – were the stuff of any vacation. As we listened to their jazz and looked at their photos, New Orleans’ life seemed normal enough, recognizable despite its differences. On the other hand, Mardi Gras seemed odd, slightly degenerate, part of a world of drunkenness and debauchery best avoided by reasonable people. Continue reading
Years ago, before the advent of computers and electronic organizers, I kept a manila file folder filled with clippings. I tucked away poems I found especially moving. I kept funny cartoons, interesting speeches reprinted in the newspaper, book reviews and critical essays torn from magazines. As years of reading and re-reading passed, I unfolded those fragile pages ever more carefully, watching the paper brown with age and begin to grow fragile. The file became a touchstone of sorts, and it always was close at hand.
Eventually, I lost the file. Where or when it happened is a mystery. I simply reached for it, and it was gone. Since that day, I’ve spent years searching for a half-remembered poem about a dog, a poinsettia, and loss, not to mention a commencement speech about climbing a mountain. I’ve not much hope of finding either, because I remember only a few words from each and have no idea of their original source.
On the other hand, I do remember some of the cartoons. One of my favorites showed a disheveled Graeco-Roman woman standing outside a cafe filled with patrons engrossed in books or bent over coffee cups, writing in notebooks. Barefooted, dressed in a flowing robe and sporting a laurel wreath in her hair, she clutched a sign that said, “Will inspire for residuals”.
I didn’t do a lick of writing at the time, but I knew enough to laugh. The thought of a down-on-her-luck Muse soliciting business outside a cafe is humorous because it’s so absurd. Continue reading