Story and photos by Babbie De Derian
The Lafayette, Louisiana Way of Life
“I throw strands of colorful beads to the cheering crowd
as our float rolls through town. I am here to celebrate
Mardi Gras, and the tastes and sounds of Arcadia”
Lafayette, at the heart of Louisiana's Cajun and Creole Country, is an out-of-the-ordinary destination with a history that dates back to the 18th Century; locals are warm and welcoming, and life revolves around tradition, family and fun. It is a foodies paradise and a two- step dancing town known for "letting the good times roll" ... and roll they did on my recent invite to the greatest free party on earth, a colorful celebration known as Mardi Gras.
My American Airlines flight from LaGuardia, with a connection in Dallas, is stress- free, and I arrive in Lafayette refreshed and excited to be here. My large room at the Hilton Doubletree is well appointed; the strong massage shower and fluffy towels a welcome treat, and the lobby bar, a great place for a nightcap.
Mardi Gras, established by the Catholic Church, takes place 40 days preceding Easter. The season of Carnival begins on Jan 6th., known as the 12th night and the day the Christ child was visited by the three Kings; with this date comes an old tradition of sharing “King Cakes”. Usually baked with a small baby token inside, King Cakes are filled with delicious things like pecan pralines, cream cheese, fruit and preserves â€¦ and then decorated in the carnival’s official colors: purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power (selected in 1872 by King Rex, the King of New Orleans Carnival). Whoever gets the slice with the token must buy the next cake, and so on and so on. Lafayette residents celebrate Mardi Gras week with the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras, balls, pageants, marching bands and eight parades. Krewes (private social organizations made up of men, women, children and families) organize and sponsor the floats. Any group of people can pull together to create a krewe as long as it is man powered and the throws are eco-friendly.
The Inaugural Krewe de Canailles is a walking parade made up of individual sub-krewes. When the parade is over, we follow the New Native Brass Marching Band and the Lost Bayou Ramblers straight to the door of Warehouse 535 for the afterparty. The room quickly fills with revelers dressed in outrageous costumes and masks; it is a party to end all parties, and I get caught up in the fantasy of the moment.
"Tabasco in any language translates as "good flavors and good times". TABASCO pepper sauces have been made on Avery Island for 150 years. Every chef worth his pepper sauce has a favorite Tabasco flavor. We follow the process with a tour that takes us from the growing of the peppers in the hothouses to the harvest, mashing, processing, tasting and bottling. We let our taste buds guide us at the tasting bar before purchasing our favorite. Avery Island is also home to one of the world's most beautifully preserved nature sanctuaries with plants and flowers from around the world, alligators, deer, snowy egrets, bears and bobcats.
The Rip Van Winkle Gardens, a magical setting and a recognized jewel in Arcadia, tells the story of Lake Peigneur and the Joseph Jefferson Home. It was built in 1870 as a winter hunting lodge for Joseph Jefferson, a painter and 19th century actor who played the part of Rip Van Winkle over 4500 times on stage. We stroll the gardens where peacocks roam freely, join a scheduled tour of the house, and then lunch on Cajun and Creole fare at Café Jefferson.
The Krewe of Bonaparte Parade rolls through town, and we are in the VIP viewing stands shouting for our share of Mardi Gras beads. After the last float passes, we head off to The Grouse Room, Lafayette's newest venue and the place to be tonight; Jamie Bergeron & The Kickin Cajuns, one of the most popular acts along the Gulf Coast, are there jamming, and I get a chance to practice and perfect my two-step. Lafayette's Dance Halls and live music venues are very much a way of enjoying life to its fullest; Miller's Zydeco Hall of Fame, with its weekend line-up of the most famous musicians on the zydeco circuit, attracts the biggest crowds.
We take a stroll back in time with a visit to Vermilionville, a 23-acre restored historic village that depicts Arcadian and Creole Culture from 1765 to 1890; their performance center features live music every Sunday
The San Souci Gallery, home to the Louisiana Crafts Guild, was voted one of the top places to shop in the South. Steeped in local history, it is a treasure trove of original artisan pottery, jewelry, glass and textiles. I am attracted to the work of three times US Pottery Olympics Champion Bruce Odell who uses RAKU, an ancient Japanese fast-firing technique, to create a spectrum of metallic color.
The road to Lake Martin Bird Sanctuary is magical. The bleak cloudy sky intensifies my emotions as we rumble down a dirt road, muddy from a week of rain. White egrets flit by; a flash of a grey deer catches my eye; surreal trees with sculptured branches and empty bird nests rise from alligator mating sanctuaries. Cory Werk, founder of Bayou Teche Experiences, helps us slide our canoes into the water, and then leads us on a fascinating informative mini-expedition through the alligator swamp habitat.
In the afternoon, we drive inland to the town of Eunice, in the farming Parrish of St Landry. We’ve been invited to their Annual Lundi Gras Boucherie, a celebratory pig roast that is held in a huge barn at Lakeview RV Park. Tradition began as a way to survive the winter months with plenty of food; today it is a community celebration that begins with a live hog butchering and dishes prepared by local chefs. When we arrive, parts are being stirred into huge caldrons; ribs and chops slow cooking in the outdoor smokehouse. We buy $2.00 tickets and wait in line to be served every part of the pig, which we wash down with Turbo beer. It is a festive afternoon; the zydeco band has the crowd stomping and twirling.
The Queen Evangeline Parade and the prestigious Krewe of Gabriel, bills itself as the most fun filled and family-oriented Mardi Gras celebration in the South. Founded in 1934 by local businessmen to coordinate and expand Mardi Gras celebrations in Lafayette, today, they give more than financial support: actively selecting the bands, assisting in the production of the pageant, Ball and parade, and as a liaison with local government agencies. The Mardi Gras Ball of Tableau, symbolizes and reunites Arcadian sweethearts King Gabriel and Queen Evangeline, separated during the expulsion of the Arcadians from Nova Scotia, immortalized in Longfellow's Evangeline.
The Eunice Courir de Mardi Gras, a rural Fat Tuesday tradition, (also known as “the running of the chicken”) dates back to when the town was first established in the 19th Century. This celebration is rooted in early “begging rituals”; riders on horseback, wearing clothes, made from collected scraps of fabric, and whimsical masks to hide their identity, went from house to house soliciting “donations” of food items needed to prepare a community gumbo. In response, farmers would release a chicken saying “if you catch it, you can have it”. The modern enactment of this tradition brings more than 2,000 members of the community and friends out for a day of mischief and fun; a highlight being the “release and running of the chickens€”. It is not easy to catch a squawking chicken as it runs frantically around the field, but who ever does, gets to keep it. People dressed in colorful costumes, wearing tall cone shaped hats and scary masks, gather on foot, horseback and on flatbed trucks to ride or walk through the fields, farms and town. The challenge is to be unrecognizable and not talk so you can act silly and do things without anyone knowing who you are. It is a day of outrageous antics, and a highlight of my visit.
After a week of experiencing a few of Lafayette’s not-to-be-missed attractions, it is my turn to be part of a Krewe and throw beads to the crowd.
Jim Richard, an active humanitarian is all about giving back to the community. Known as the Godfather of comedy, Jim produces the Cajun Comic Relief, an annual charity event, and sponsors a Mardi Gras Parade float. He graciously invites us to ride on his float. Once on-board, we open hundreds of bags filled with colorful strands of Mardi Gras beads; hang them on hooks; adjust our masks and begin flinging strand after strand into the energized crowds that line the streets... a ritual that dates back to the 1870s. As our float continues its three - hour procession through town, thousands of cheering parade goers shout “throw me something Mister/Sister”, to get my attention; I am surprised at how adept everyone, including children, are at catching the beads.
Our farewell dinner at Randol’s is a touching ode to Lafayette’s gracious Southern hospitality. Platters of raw oysters, crawfish boil and crab cakes are brought to the table; we sip our last glasses of wine, toasting to a memorable Mardi Gras.
Lafayette, steeped in tradition and history, is all about its people; with its full calendar of indoor and outdoor activities, it’s a special place to be any time of the year. The melodic and moaning stories their Cajun music tells will pull at your heart strings; their rhythmic Zydeco music will have you stomping the two- step, just as I did with a tall handsome cowboy.
To quote Ben Berthelot, Executive Director of the CVB, “We invite you to come see why we were voted the happiest city by the Wall Street Journal. Our people are some of the nicest around; our culture shines through our music, food and festivals, and I love that my kids are able to grow up in such a culturally rich environment. We promise you will leave with your belly full and a smile on your face” - which is exactly what I did.
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