Cluck and Run
Out on the Cajun prairie, some 150 miles west of New Orleans, a throng of Mardi Gras revelers prepares to descend upon a clapboard house. It’s the day before Ash Wednesday, in the relatively sober morning hours of the Courir de Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday Run, a Cajun tradition in which participants parade house to house begging for various ingredients for a celebratory communal gumbo. Ahead of the throng of runners, a purple-and-gold-caped man on horseback, the capitaine, is already on the property, talking with the people who live there. The runners, in their hand-sewn, fringed costumes and masks, wait for permission to join him. Finally, the capitaine waves his white flag and the runners sprint for the lawn. At the front door of the house, they fall to their knees, clasp their hands together, and beg. “Donnez-moi quelque chose pour le Mardi Gras!” Give me something for the Mardi Gras.
Standing in the bed of a red pickup truck beside the house, a man in a T-shirt, jeans, and baseball cap removes a rooster from a cage and thrusts the bird over his head. “Allons!” the runners cheer. Let’s go! He tosses the bird out over the crowd, feathers trailing in its wake. The rooster hits the ground running, and the chase is on. A runner in blue scrubs lined with rainbow fringe pursues the loosed bird into a pond. He emerges soaked but victorious, the main ingredient for the celebratory gumbo in hand.
As far back as the 18th century, the Courir de Mardi Gras has been practiced here in Acadiana, or Cajun Country, which comprises the southwest region of Louisiana. The origins of the ritual lie in the medieval fête de la quémande, or feast of begging, whereby rural French revelers went house to house entertaining voisins, or neighbors, in exchange for gifts. However, during the 1940s, with the disruption of World War II, the practice began to fade away. Some say the decline was exacerbated by the general cultural shift toward modernity. In the middle of the 1950s, the construction of Interstate 10 across the region brought more outsiders through Acadiana, and, later, American influences crept in, like the introduction of the first McDonald’s to Cajun Country in 1972, in Calcasieu Parish. In recent decades, however, the tradition has been experiencing a revival. This particular run, the Courir de Faquetaique (pronounced fickee-tie-yay), was started some 10 years ago in response to the commercialization, or Americanization, of many local runs. For many locals and visitors alike, the Faquetaique run offers a down-home alternative to the glitzy super floats and plastic beads of the Fat Tuesday celebrations in neighboring New Orleans.
“The older I get, the more I see how much America is moving in on our area, how many important aspects of our culture we lose, and that definitely makes me cling to the ones we have,” explains Jourdan Thibodeaux, the purple-and-gold-caped capitaine. “So many things are just so Americanized. But that’s everywhere you go. Nobody’s cut off anymore, so small communities across the country start to lose their individuality.”
Of the Faquetaique run, Thibodeaux appreciates that every participant is in costume, and that all the music is French and played by hand. “That’s important to me.”
Throughout the day, the runners stop at houses, begging and singing. They chase chickens through yards, under porches, across fields. As they go door to door, they two-step on the street, nip liquor from flasks, and engage in all manner of canaille, or mischief. When the runners reach a particular field, though, a different type of chase ensues.
Out of the earth stretches a 20-foot oil-slicked metal pole, and atop that pole perches a cage, and inside that cage: a chicken. How did that chicken get up there exactly? “That’s the mystery,” says Thibodeaux. “If you knew how it got there, you’d know how to get it down.” The runners form a pack around the base of the pole. The brave and agile climb atop others’ shoulders. Hands and knees try to grip, but they struggle, slide. Stacked foot to shoulder, they try again. “Come on, build it up!” a voice yells from the ground. After 15
minutes or so of futile effort, a shirtless man, all arms and shoulders, equipped with a pair of grippy gloves, quickly ascends the pole. He opens the cage door, and the chicken flies out over the crowd.
Midafternoon, the runners return to the grassy field where the courir began. After all the begging and chasing, it’s finally time for their reward. Sprawled on the ground, costumes soaked with mud, sweat, and booze, the revelers unmask and inhale their chicken-and-sausage gumbo. Some runners, still costumed, dangle tired legs into an inflatable hot tub. But the day is not quite over. Under a white tent, a zydeco band strikes up a song. There is still one evening left before the Lenten season officially begins, meaning there’s still time to party. The runners each grab a partner and begin to dance.