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Family-Friendly Mardi Gras, Lake Charles, LA

LOUISIANA_Gumbeaux GatorA family friendly Mardi Gras. Seriously?

When most folks think Mardi Gras, they envision New Orleans, drunken parties and rowdy crowds.

But almost every city, town and wide spot in the road along the Gulf Coast seems to have its own version of this pre-Lent party. And Lake Charles, across the state from New Orleans, bills itself as not only the second largest, but also the most family-friendly Mardi Gras.

We’re talking nine parades, a chicken run with waist high tykes scrambling across the landscape after running roosters, couples in matching feather costumes, sweet cherubs in party dresses.

And, oh yes, Cajun food.

Louisiana pirate

Pirate on buccaneer float during the children’s parade shows off his rings and doubloons.

But while you’re in the area there’s lots more … eco tours to see incredible numbers of birds, gator rescue operations, a rum factory, restored plantations. [See Yvette’s story, “Lake Charles, LA: Birds and So Much More.]

Frolic Before Famine

Louisiana catfish

Cajun food, like this fried catfish, is a big part of Mardi Gras celebrations.

For those who don’t know, Mardi Gras (also called Fat Tuesday) is all about partying down before the sacrifices of Lent. Parties, liquor, costumes, really rich food … all those things you’re supposed to deny yourself as a pious person in coming weeks. What became a legal holiday in Louisiana in 1875 has its roots in ancient Rome where wild pagan parties were folded into the new Christian faith.

Lake Charles, meanwhile, wanted a kinder, gentler version of all this revelry.

Louisiana parade float

Decorations on the side of a parade float.

The parades are major. If you’re on a float, you toss beads. If you’re on the curb, you catch beads.

Mardi Gras parade kid

A young boy waits with his beads for the parade to begin. Photo Bobbie Hasselbring

Ah yes, the bead tossing. I asked what bead tossing was all about. And I got answers–lots of them. The one that made the most sense was it’s a modern version of a pagan ritual of throwing flour as thanks to the gods for surviving yet another winter.

Sounds good to me.

Meanwhile, my introduction to Mardi Gras parades was the Children’s Parade, where I got a chance to ride the Buccaneer float with pirate Ken, who showed up with his own coat, feathered hat and huge rings on each finger. Our one float had 50 boxes of plastic beads, each holding 60 dozen strands per box. And we were only one of some 100 floats in this parade.

Lk Charles Mardi Gras parade

Float revelers get ready to toss beads. Photo Bobbie Hasselbring

The beads all said “made in China.”, Mardi Gras may single-handedly support the Chinese economy.

As for the bead tossing … well, who knew flinging handfuls of beads to tiny, outstretched hands could be so much fun. A rainbow of purple, green and gold beads … the official Mardi Gras colors … darkened the sky.

Mardi Gras beads

It’s all about the beads. Photo Bobbie Hasselbring

A few days later, this time at night, we were the bead catchers. There’s a trick to snagging a strand in mid-air without being beaned on the noggin, though I never did quite figure it out.

Galas and Chicken Runs
Between parades was the Royal Gala at the Lake Charles Civic Center. Anyone can come. A few dollars gets you a seat in the bleachers to watch 50-plus krewes strut around the arena.

A krewe is a social group. Originally only men, now couples and some for women-only, krewes hold parties throughout the year and do charity projects. Most of all, they concoct out-of-this-world costumes for Mardi Gras.

One story is the word krewe was coined in the early 19th century by an organization calling themselves Ye Mistick Krewe of Comus as an archaic affectation for crew and, over time, it became the most common term for a Mardi Gras organization.

Louisiana Mardi Gras costumes

King and queen of Krewe du Lac in the parade of Krews in the Lake Charles Civic Center.

Louisiana rooster

Rodney Victorian, chicken captain, holds one of his prize roosters for the traditional Chicken Run.

It’s the feathers, though, that are really impressive. Yikes, there’s a LOT of feathers. One woman, who weighs all of 108 lbs, was being strapped into her 35 pound array of four-foot-tall, blinding white plumage. These costumes are worth thousands of dollars, take weeks to assemble and no, they are NOT worn outside on parade floats. They are way too fragile.

Back in the arena, the announcer introduced each krewe … a parade of delicate feathers, scary dragons that towered 20 feet, Gumbeaux the local alligator mascot, and movie themes, including “Star Wars.” It was a furious march of colors.

But honestly, my favorite event of the week had to be the chicken run.

Iowa (prounced I-O-Way) is this tiny town of maybe 3,000 people that is part of the Lake Charles area. The chicken run has been tradition here for nearly 40 years. This year, as it has for many decades, the day started with Mary Victorian, 80, stirring a huge pot on a stove in the local community center.

The roux (a secret mix of flour and fat), augmented by broth, was bubbling away.

Louisiana etoufee

The secret to etoufee, a traditional rice dish served in Louisiana, is the roux.

The idea was we would go out on floats, stopping along the way, dancing and singing for bags of ingredients that would go into Mary’s gumbo. Onions, bell peppers, celery (the holy trinity of gumbo), along with sausage, chicken, spices.

Louisiana chicken run 2

Woman dressed in chicken suit for the l Chicken Run.

“We’ll feed 500 today,” Mary told me.

But the main event was the chicken run itself.

Rodney Victorian had his prize roosters in tow. At random houses along the way, he strutted about, holding one of the handsome birds high in the air. The chickens were amazingly calm about it all (these birds have done this before).

They were calm, that is, until Rodney flung the bird of the moment into the air and total mayhem followed as a dozen pint size kids scrambled after it.

The first speedy little fowl made a run for the woods, making his bid to return to the wild.

Chicken run mardi gras

Boy chases chicken in Louisiana’s annual Mardi Gras Chicken Run. Photo by Bob Sessions.

The next birds, in a blur of knees, sneakers and hands, were caught, usually by some agile 10-year-old who would stand there, a shy, proud grin on his face, bird clutched to his chest.

No, the birds weren’t destined for the pot. Athletic roosters don’t make good eating. Rodney would care for them until their run next year.

When the week was over, I found myself waiting to board the jet back to Seattle with other Seattleites — taciturn descendants of Vikings who don’t look at strangers, much less casually talk to them. I was already missing the warmth and outgoing friendliness of the South … a place where Mardi Gras are family friendly and total strangers say good morning and how are you today and wait for an answer because they really want to know.


By Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor



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Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor

Yvette Cardozo from the Seattle, Washington area, likes to visit interesting places and learn about interesting cultures and, if a tasty local dish is involved, so much the better. She’s eaten everything from gourmet food at the world’s finest restaurants to native food in Asia, the arctic, and all kinds of places in between.Yvette recalls being in Antarctica and going out on the land with Inuit elders in arctic Canada , then bagging a caribou. They dragged it back to camp and ate it on the spot raw. She quips, “Hey, if you like steak tartare….”Yvette, who is a veteran skier and diver, is RFT’s Ski & Dive Editor.