Travel season officially began today, February 17, 2015, with our becoming-customary visit to Fred’s Lounge in Mamou, Louisiana. Today is Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras everywhere, and everywhere includes Mamou, Eunice, and Church Point, as well as New Orleans, Rio, and Mobile. In those small towns it’s a whole ‘nother festival. Courirs are more like Boxing Day or Halloween as the masked and costumed participants visit farms and big homes begging for something good to eat. Specifically, they ask for chickens, sausage, rice, or even onions and peppers to go into a gumbo of at least 500 servings. The stew is prepared in late afternoon downtown, then ladled out to all who come by. The meal is entirely gratis, thanks to the generosity of those more or less well-off.
But we are a fairly prosperous nation, even in rural Louisiana. The great majority of the courir runners travel on horseback. A few walk, but most who lack horses ride in flatbed trailers pulled by pickups or tractors. Everybody drinks, but civilization is gradually being incorporated into country Mardi Gras. Now there are port-o-lets towed on trailers behind the riders, and the Capitaines frown on whisky and anything stronger than Bud Light. Buffoonery is a big part of the day, and the beer doesn’t inhibit that. Dancing for the amusement of the would-be donors is de rigueur. Standing in the saddle (not the stirrups!) is done or attempted by the athletic, the bold, and of course the snockered.
Onions, peppers and sausages are necessary for gumbo, but the real test of one’s manhood is the chicken chase. 500 plates of gumbo requires maybe 30 chickens to make a hearty one, but if a dozen is all you have that will have to fly. Again, the Great Recession is over and this year the donors felt generous. We saw three or four fowl caught in a 15 minute stop at the one farm visit we witnessed that you get to see courtesy of Kat’s camera. My guess is tonight’s gumbo will be meaty indeed.
There are only a handful of Courirs left, and since it’s hard to envision modern Frenchmen doing this, all are held in south Louisiana. Cajuns brought the custom with them when they were expelled from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by the British during the French & Indian War. Cajuns have kept it alive ever since. Mamou’s courir has gone dark just twice, during the Civil War and for most of World War II. Alfred Tate and his partners in Fred’s Lounge led and sponsored its second revival in the late 1940’s.
These days the Mamou Mardi Gras Association meets in Fred’s. The Courir begins there sometime between 7 and 8 a.m. each Fat Tuesday. Is it that big a stretch to say Mamou lives today because of Fred’s Lounge? A good saloon does a lot for a town; I think we need more pubs!