A late winter chill crosses the field but not enough to deter any activity. To the contrary, it triggers the senses, providing the jolt for the day ahead. The capitaine, wearing a cape and carrying his flag, mounts his steed. The riders in his posse gather around him, frocked in costumes and masks. From somewhere in the group a song echoes:
“Capitaine, capitaine, voyage ton flag, tout le tour du moyeu/ Une fois par an pour demander la charité”
(“Captain, captain wave your flag, all around the hub/ Once each year to ask for charity”)
A wagon carrying musicians and those riders not blessed with horses prepares to follow the group. Every tradition has its sacred shrine, and for the Courir de Mardi Gras ritual, as practiced in the Evangeline Parish town of Mamou, the holy place is Fred’s Lounge.
More than just a bar, Fred’s has been the beacon of the songs from the land. Every Saturday morning Cajun musicians gather at Fred’s, where the atmosphere is still smoky from the night before, to rollick before a radio microphone. Riding the waves of nearby Ville Platte’s radio station, KVPI, the music broadcasts across the prairies, giving a rhythm to the new day. On Mardi Gras morning, masked riders provide their own pulse – this one in key to the beat of hooves. There are chickens to be rustled, food to be begged.
Celebrations are often history wrapped in a ribbon and repackaged for posterity’s sake. In medieval France it was a common practice, one day a year, for the peasants to approach the nearby castles and manors to beg for food in return for singing and other forms of entertainment. In a world divided between the few who were very wealthy and the multitudes who were very poor, the wealthy knew that is was in their best interest to allow the multitudes to be amused. So it was acceptable for there to be what amounted to controlled begging. A chicken in every pot was certainly a small price to pay to avoid revolutions; besides, the peasants could be entertaining and when gathered around a cauldron, they could be quite creative with a few vegetables and a meager chicken.
Begging-based traditions of various types developed throughout Europe and many were carried across the ocean to the American continent. To Philadelphia, Swedes brought the custom of “mumming,” in which maskers would visit area homes on New Year’s Day for the business of begging. To the French-speaking lower coast of Louisiana came the rituals from the old country. Since New Orleans has already established a Mardi Gras tradition in the state, the Cajun country created a rural version. The forces of history converged in the south Louisiana flatlands. Au revoir, la France; bonjour, Mamou. The riders known collectively as the Courir de Mardi Gras, galloping toward their mission, would cause a thunder in the fields.
In Mamou on the night before Mardi Gras Day, there had been a street dance. Now as the horses raced along well-worn paths, similar activity was being conducted in other towns of Acadiana; including Basile, Church Point and Elton, each with a variation in the costumes and songs, all with the intent of gathering ingredients for a meal.
Just as the French peasantry created culinary magic from their pot, by day’s end the revelers will have made a rich chicken and sausage gumbo accompanied with, for those convinced of the nutritional benefits of salted deep-fried pig skin, a scattering of cracklins. As the sun sets and the chill intensifies, the songs of Mardi Gras might be heard one more time only to return the following year.
In France, where it all began, the begging rituals have long been forgotten. The United State has become the repository of old traditions – though with localized flourishes. The riders thought they were out to make a gumbo.
In fact they were saving a culture.