A Tradition To Dye For
Arthur Nead Illustration
If you’re ever in Effie, La., on the day before Easter, head to the Red River. There, at Ben Routh state park, you’ll see people picnicking, barbecuing and wearing decorated bonnets. If you look closely you’ll also see an endangered tradition being preserved – it’s called egg knocking.
Located in Avoyelles Parish, Effie is a dot in the road somewhere between Marksville and Alexandria. Culturally, if Avoyelles Parish was a country it would be Switzerland, minus the mountains, chocolate and army knives. Its similarity, though, would be a central location where cultures blend. Just as Switzerland is part French, Avoyelles is the northernmost outpost of French Louisiana. Cross the Red River and the dialects change. Even among the French there are divisions. Though many locals are raised in the Cajun culture they’re not Cajuns, but descendants of Napoleonic soldiers who were given land grants there.
Common to the French though, both Acadian or otherwise, is the custom of what is property called egg “paquing” (taken I presumed from “Pâques,” the French word for Easter) but what we Americans call “knocking.”
I was raised in New Orleans but in a paquing household. Even as adults my mom, who was a native of Avoyelles Parish, bought a Paas egg-dyeing kit. Each Good Friday while the oysters were frying (our own personal tradition) we would dye eggs. Two days later we would bring them wherever we were going to be knocking. Like the sport of boxing, this is a one-on-one event. Each person holds an egg with the pointed end up. One person taps the shell of the other’s egg. Whichever egg breaks is surrendered to the other person. Sometimes, just to keep the action going, contestants will meet again and tap the rounded ends.
(It has been said that dyed eggs taste better than those that are not. I have concluded that this is true, but probably because the colored one have been around for a day or two and thus developed a fuller flavor, whereas regular non-Easter boiled eggs are usually eaten sooner.)
As a kid I thought that everyone knocked eggs and was surprised to learn that they did not. One might have thought that the Creoles would have preserved the custom, but perhaps spring in New Orleans offered such a bounty so as not to create much place for boiled eggs. Fortunately the French parishes, from Avoyelles heading south, have done better. To this day eggs paquing is still held on the Marksville Court House grounds each Easter Morning. And now, for the last eight years, there has been the Easter on the Red River event at the state park. For the competition, contestants are lined up across from each other. Boiled eggs are distributed, and then there’s a massive knockathon.
As is true with any contest, there’s a way to cheat. Egg knocking hustlers have long known that the egg of the guinea hen, though smaller, has a tougher shell that can outdo any conventional chicken eggs. The prize, however, which amounts to possessing a bunch of cracked eggs, may not be worth the sin.
Most of the time though, the custom is practiced without anyone going over the moral cliff. We learn from preserving our customs: Today’s tradition is tomorrow’s egg salad.