Cajun Mardi Gras Swaps Colorful Beads for a Chicken Chase

Courir de Mardi Gras is the holiday like you’ve never seen it before.

Cajun Mardi Gras costumes
Photo courtesy of Explore Louisiana
Photo courtesy of Explore Louisiana

My introduction to Cajun Mardi Gras began in a trailer park just outside of Lafayette, Louisiana on the day before Fat Tuesday, where I spent the morning watching a man clean a pig’s stomach with Dawn dish soap and a small pink brush like you’d find at a nail salon.

Alongside all the requisite merriment and mischief that comes with Mardi Gras, community is the cornerstone of the holiday for people in the Acadian region of Louisiana, about two hours from the celebration’s iconic epicenter in New Orleans. Families get together for large, multi-generational feasts before participating in the Courir de Mardi Gras, or run of Mardi Gras, on Fat Tuesday, when locals band together to chase down chickens and revel in pure, unadulterated fun. Yes, it’s the last chance to misbehave before Lent—and Cajuns take full advantage—but these celebrations are also about preserving a culture that’s long been sidelined and bringing people together for traditions that are distinctly their own.

In the 22 parishes that make up Cajun Country, locals gather on the Monday before Mardi Gras, known as Lundi Gras, for pig roasts like the party I attended in Eunice. These traditional boucheries began out of necessity as a way to survive the winter by preparing large-scale cuts of meat to dole out to the community, but today these small gatherings are all about keeping this small, tight-knit community together.

As the pig roasts on a spit outside, a six-piece band is in the barn playing accordions and scratching washboards to make zydeco music that’ll get people on the dancefloor. Under the barn’s chicken-shaped disco ball, beer is flowing and kids are munching on crispy bites of cracklin’. A game of chicken shit bingo is about to start outside. It’s not even 10 am yet, but the party will roll on until well past midnight—and the main event, the Courir de Mardi Gras, will start on Fat Tuesday.

The Cajun people, who were pushed out of French Canada and forced south to settle in the Louisiana swamplands, brought their distinctive Mardi Gras traditions with them to Louisiana in the 18th century, but the customs date back to medieval France. Poor townspeople who were not invited to more luxurious parties would celebrate Fat Tuesday by running from house to house, asking for ingredients to make a large communal meal and feast before the solemn period of Lent. Not wanting to be seen begging for food or taking handouts, they’d sing songs and dance at each stop during the run so they could consider the food donations payment for their performance.

Typical attire for the day includes clothing covered in fringed, patchwork fabric, cone-shaped hats called capuchons, and wire face masks. The costumes were originally intended to both poke fun at the rich and conceal the mask wearer’s identity while they asked for food and engaged in drunken revelry around town.

Cajun Mardi Gras costumes
Photo courtesy of Explore Louisiana

Costumed participants gather as the sun is coming up and hop on horses, flatbed trailers, and wagons to follow the group leader, called a capitaine, on horseback. The band then stops at various farms and houses in town, but these days, the parades are typically symbolic and participants may sing and dance along the way, but they aren’t asking for ingredients to make a large dish like gumbo.

That is, until the final stop. The courier, or run, concludes when the group must procure a chicken, and it’s the most iconic part of the Courir de Mardi Gras celebration. Fueled by uptempo fiddle music and, yes, plenty of beer, the participants run through rice paddies, swampy farmlands, and neighbors’ yards trying to catch a chicken, pushing and shoving their former comrades out of the way in the process.

In an episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain described it best: “[The run] is kind of like trick or treating if your Halloween candy moved at high speed and all the other trick or treaters were drunk, competing for the same peanut butter cup as if it were the last peanut butter cup on Earth and they didn't care if they killed you to get it.”

women at Cajun Mardi Gras
Photo courtesy of Explore Louisiana

For decades this raucous tradition was strictly for local men and no women or tourists were allowed. But as many Cajuns work to preserve their culture and pass it on to future generations, official city events and groups like Faquetigue have started hosting more inclusive Courir de Mardi Gras celebrations where registration is open to all.

Eventually the colorful procession—with costumed participants dangling off truck beds, holding squawking chickens by their feet, and crushing more than a few cans of beer—will make its way back to the main street for a lively (and more family-friendly) parade. It may be a far cry from the glittery excess that defines Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but this is Cajun Mardi Gras and it’s the way the holiday has been celebrated for more than a century.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube.

Liz Provencher is an editor at Thrillist. You can get in touch at lprovencher@thrillist.com or see what she eats on Instagram.