"Chicken on the Run! Chicken on the Run!" With those words, some two hundred beery young men, all of them masked and costumed, tore after one of a half dozen live chickens and guinea hens in the front yard of a farmhouse.
They threw themselves onto the ground or into mud puddles. One climbed the roof of the one-story house in pursuit of an errant fowl; others flung themselves into bushes. One young man, after a stampede, found himself doubled over on the ground, moaning and clutching his midsection.
This was the scene early Sunday at the Courir de Mardi Gras -- or Running of the Mardi Gras -- in this small town on south Louisiana's Cajun prairie.
"There's something wrong with you if you're not intimidated when they come in hollerin' and stompin'," said Wayne Bourdelon, 57, who came for the festivities. "These drunked-up people are liable to do anything."
About two hours away from the exhibitionism and debauchery of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Courir de Mardi Gras is a decidedly rural affair. The tradition dates back to French and Acadian settlers who came here in the 18th century and celebrated the period before Lent with a week or so of decadence.
Most southern Louisiana towns have Mardi Gras parades, but Church Point is one of only a handful that practice the Running of the Mardi Gras, where masked men on horseback ride from home to home begging donations of live chickens, rice or sausage for a community gumbo, which is served at a dance party later that day.
When the riders arrive at homes along the five-mile parade route, the Mardi Gras Capitaine raises a white flag of friendship and asks landowners for permission for his runners to enter their land. When permission is granted, homeowners throw live chickens into the air and the melee begins.
Tradition dictates that only men are allowed to chase chickens or ride on horseback, said Church Point resident Amy Daigle, 25. As a member of the Hot Stuff Krewe, Daigle wore chili pepper-print pajamas, devil horns and a placard that read "Hot Damn."
Back in the day the women would follow the riders in wagons. Today they mingle freely with the men on parade floats.
"Good friends plus good drinks equals good times," Daigle said of the parade.
This year there were nearly 80 floats, sponsored by various krewes, or social clubs. Many floats were equipped with barbecue grills, port-a-johns and sound systems blaring swamp pop music (example: Lynyrd Skynyrd covers with accordions replacing guitar solos). Revelers of all ages, many dressed in green, gold and purple costumes, threw Mardi Gras beads from the floats to spectators on the roadside.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has been toned down this year, drawing smaller crowds than in previous years. In Church Point, however, the turnout was higher than ever. Organizers estimated that around a thousand people would turn up at the Saddle Trap Riding Club for post-parade feasting and dancing.
Susanne Knudsen, 49, came with friends all the way from Denmark, where she and her friends have picked up Cajun music. "We have a friend who just fell in love with the music and took it back to Denmark," said Knudsen, who now plays the triangle and washboard. She was having a great time, she said, adding, "I think these people are funny."
While the parade was in progress, the more reserved members of the community gathered at the Riders Club, a local venue for rodeos, dances and other community gatherings. There, a Mardi Gras Queen was crowned and older couples tirelessly two-stepped across the dance floor.
But the real party started when the parade rolled back into town and the crowd spilled out into the yard. People flirted, chugged beers, talked loudly and tried to keep the good times rolling, having been partying since sunup.
In the middle of the crowd a young man sat on his cooler and casually vomited between his legs onto the ground below. No one even noticed.
A SMOKIN' GUMBO
Many residents of southern Louisiana take pride in their Cajun cooking. Tommy Bodin is no different.
This was Bodin's first year cooking the community gumbo for the Courir de Mardi Gras. The 49-year-old sandpaper salesman from Church Point agreed to share his recipe and some of his secrets. For this particular batch, Bodin used 72 chickens and 80 pounds of sausage, but you should probably start much smaller at home.
1. First Bodin filled three enormous caldrons halfway to the top with water. When it came to a boil he added a roux. For a recipe this of size Bodin used a store-bought roux (40 pounds of it to be exact), but he recommends making it yourself -- add flour to an equal part of vegetable oil over medium heat and stir continuously until it is a golden brown. "You can ruin it quick," says Bodin "You'll get an awful flavor if you burn it, so you've got to stand over the pot and don't leave."
The roux is added to the boiling water until the desired consistency is achieved. The gumbo should not be as dense as a stew, but thick enough so that you can't see your serving spoon through the broth.
2. Next, add finely chopped onions bell peppers, garlic, celery and parsley. They should be cooked at least until they become translucent.
3. Then add the chicken, which has been seasoned to taste with salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper. Bodin has removed the skin and cut the birds up into 16 equal pieces. At home, Bodin likes to use the giblets, but leaves them out of a community gumbo because not everyone is a fan. Allow the chicken to cook for about an hour-and-a-half, until it starts to fall off the bone. (For a smaller gumbo two whole chickens is about right.)
4. Toward the end of the process, throw in some precooked smoked sausage (store-bought will do). It's important not to cook it for too long, says Bodin, or else it will loose its smoky flavor.
5. Serve over steamed white rice The whole process should take about three hours.
"It's pretty simple," says Bodin. Unfortunately, though, it takes some practice to get it right. There are no exact ratios when it comes to ingredients and it takes some practice to perfect the seasoning and the roux -- particularly the roux. The key to making a gumbo? "Experience," says Bodin.