AT FIRST GLANCE, IT LOOKS LIKE YOUR AVERAGE TAILGATE PARTY: people piling ice chests into pickup trucks, music blaring from speakers, children racing around and squealing with glee. But this is Louisiana, where everything is different. Those folks carrying coolers?They're wearing costumes adorned with fringe, beads, and fluorescent rickrack. The music isn't jock rock but the insistent chank-a-chank rhythms of zydeco. And the kids—why, that one's running after a chicken.
I'm in Eunice, a tiny town on the edge of Cajun country, about 170 miles west of New Orleans. It's Mardi Gras morning, and I've talked my way onto a parade float. After climbing aboard the flatbed trailer, I squeeze in next to a thirtysomething blonde named Rhonda from nearby Lafayette. A dead ringer for Bette Midler, Rhonda has been attending South Louisiana Mardi Gras ever since she was a child. (I'm a native Louisianian myself, but this is my first Cajun-flavored festival.) "You see these?" she says, digging into a box overflowing with costume jewelry. "These are the good beads, the ones you keep for yourself because they're so beautiful—or throw to someone you think is cute."
The truck lurches into gear, rolling through neighborhoods where entire families are assembled on front lawns to watch the parade. Grandmas, their hair coiled in tight buns, blink sleep from their eyes, while gaggles of excited youngsters run along the street's edge, hoping to catch a handful of beads. We toss necklaces and bracelets to the crowd as Rhonda continues her dissertation. "Now these are the 'chinchy' beads," she says, hauling out a plastic bag filled with cheap plastic baubles. "You throw these to people you don't like."
MARDI GRAS IN CAJUN COUNTRY BEARS LITTLE RESEMBLANCE TO THE BLOATED EXCESS OF NEW ORLEANS'S, where hundreds of thousands of people flood the French Quarter, get drunk, scramble for trinkets heaved from lavishly adorned parade floats, and then drink some more. Not that liquor isn't part of Cajun festivities (full disclosure: I crack open my first beer at 7 a.m., but pass on the Jell-O shots). The focus, however, is more on traditions that date back to the 18th century.
What's now known as the courir de Mardi Gras, or "running the Mardi Gras," began as a communal feast with costumed Acadian revelers riding from house to house to collect ingredients for one last, lavish bash before the asceticism of Lent kicked in. The present Mardi Gras run follows the same format but has evolved into a daylong event. Hundreds of people from all over the country gather in Eunice shortly after dawn to climb onto trucks and trailers that wind through 18 miles of twisty back roads.
Almost all are in costumes, many crafted from hospital scrubs, bedsheets, and even upholstery, and trimmed with traditional Mardi Gras colors of gold, green, and purple. Some revelers wear conical hats, called capuchons, that look like dunce caps and are a holdover from medieval times. Others have headdresses covered with face screens that resemble the primitive precursors to ornate Venetian masks. The original intent of these masks was to disguise the carousers from the town elders, whom they often parodied in skits and songs. But now it's all for fun. (Frankly, the freaky getups remind me more of a Klan gathering than of a Renaissance fair, but maybe that's just my newfound Yankee sensibility going into overdrive. Numerous black families line the parade route, and no one seems remotely unnerved—except me.)
Escorting the parade are several caped capitaines on horseback. Their job is to maintain order while leading the rituals. ("They fall. I pick 'em back up," says a masked capitaine in a green cape astride a similarly costumed steed.) The runners sing, dance, beg, and otherwise make fools of themselves when they stop at houses to collect the rice, sausage, chicken, and spices they need for the communal gumbo they prepare at the end of the day. There's a little soft-shoe and a lot of falling down. And here's where the chicken comes in: if these antics don't succeed, a capitaine tosses a bird into the air and the now-lubricated runners chase after it.
The begging continues as the sun and humidity rise. People are sweating like cochons under their Mardi Gras finery while the procession snakes across the featureless gray farmland. ("Man, I live here and I don't know where the hell I am," whispers a guy covered in yellow-and-orange fringe.) The last set of houses was miles ago, so there's no reason to toss beads, even to people we like. The parade has become something of an endurance contest: everyone knows we have three more hours in the sweltering heat. But just before things get unbearable, the trucks grind to a halt and we clamber off.
Picnic tables, near a crawfish pond and a dilapidated barn, are laden with a thousand pounds of boudin, a spicy sausage made with pork and rice. Most runners grab greasy links of the steamy meat and gorge themselves, while others search for a secluded spot to take care of business (the courir's organizers thoughtfully provided beer stops along the parade route but neglected to consider the consequences). "Mardi Gras is all about beer . . . and boudin . . . and getting drunk!" blurts Andy, a flush-faced teen from the nearby town of Chataignier. His smile fades as he blearily ponders his words being preserved for posterity in my notebook.
BACK ON THE PARADE ROUTE, ELVIS MAKES AN APPEARANCE ON MY FLATBED. The King—actually a woman wearing flared white spandex pants and fake sideburns—is brandishing a switch cut from a tree. "It's a bâton de fâcher," Elvis explains in a Memphis-meets-the-bayou drawl. What do you do with a bâton de fâcher? "This," she says, swatting me hard on the leg. "It pisses people off." Elvis is a big hit on my float, and there is much rejoicing when she finally leaps off. ("Elvis has left the trailer!")
Eventually, the trucks wind their way back to downtown Eunice, where some 50,000 people crowd the sidewalks. What began as a sleepy, albeit surreal, ride through quiet farmland morphs into a New Orleans—style carnival, with bystanders grabbing for beads flung into the air. There's no time to play favorites now. We hurl the good stuff with the chinch. It's thrilling and bewildering, this surging mass of humanity pleading for handfuls of plastic. A man wearing blue stars elbows me. "Excess is insufficient," he says sagely. Gazing at the screaming, happy throng, I have to agree.