Mamou — The chicken jumped the ditch, crossed the road and scurried into a canal as masked men in their vibrant tasseled costumes scrambled after. As onlookers approached, a group of about three poked up clutching a bird by a wing and the legs.
The chicken squawked, the celebrants hollered, and the Cajun band played on.
This is the Mardi Gras in Evangeline Parish. Participants rides horses, not floats, through the countryside. It’s known as a “courir,” French for “run.” The only throws are cooking ingredients — live poultry, to be precise.
Riders pay for their hosts’ generosity with entertainment. They chase animals through mud pits, to everyone’s great delight. They perform horse tricks, sing, pose for photos and dance to the music provided by a band towed around by a tractor which accompanies the men along their route.
At the end of the day, revelers enjoy a gumbo made from the food they’ve collected. It’s a tradition dating back to at least the middle ages, when paupers would beg food from the wealthy. Echoes of their French forbears could still be seen in 2016.
About 100 riders gathered around dawn in Mamou. They’re generally young, and always men — women are prohibited from riding in keeping with tradition and due to concerns that they may be injured in a drunken scrum, one organizer explained.
The men wear handmade costumes of every fabric, color and design, plus a pointed capuchon hat and a mask — some homemade and traditional, others repurposed Halloween stock featuring characters from Elvis to Homer Simpson.
All is meant to hide the identities of the riders so they can cut loose before 40 days of Lenten solemnity. A few attendees chuckled that some of the young men had been drinking steadily since the Thursday or Friday before, and one joked about getting arrested. The celebration was good-natured, though, and when a reveler on foot teetered dangerously close to stepping in manure at 8:30 in the morning, local law enforcement providing security only teased him.
The first stop in Tuesday’s courir was a retirement home in Mamou to play music and dance with the residents. Afterward, the riders struck out for the fields and farms. The men and their horses were tailed by a massive caravan of trucks, trailers and four-wheelers that allowed women, families and adolescents to take part in the festivities.
After arriving at a barn outside town, riders began to ham it up for the crowd. Throughout the day, they would variously ride backward or upside down or stand up in the saddle, perhaps even dancing a little on top of the horse. They posed for cameras and twirled girls and women to the music. Eventually, a man smuggled a chicken to one of the captains of the band, who hid the creature under his cape. When released, unhorsed celebrants chased the bird, eventually catching it in the canal. Two other fowl were released, flapping madly as a crowd of carousers lurched after them. Though both put up a good fight, they were eventually captured and put in a cage, to be driven back to town, marked for death and gumbo.
Upon leaving the barn, the horsemen, band and retinue headed west. Along their route, families gathered at the ends of driveways tossing up cans of beer, each contribution acknowledged with a loud whoop from a rider. Eventually the revelers made their way to a farmhouse where they would take part in one of the most recognizable aspects of the courir.
Hosts sat on a four-wheeler in the center of what had either been a shallow pond or a flooded field — either way, it had been reduced to a soup of mud. If the riders wanted any more chicken in their dinner, they would have to wade into the muck. But despite the breezy chill, the men dove into the mire, running down the birds with abandon as those on the banks cheered and took photos.
The crowd would continue on to other homes to spread more cheer and collect more meat for the gumbo.
“They crazy, but they’re lots of fun,” an onlooker said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.