It was warm and humid, somewhere around noon – and I found myself surrounded by dozens of kids, chasing a chicken through a field in southwest Louisiana.
I guarantee you, I had no idea my Mardi Gras would start like this!
Welcome to the Iowa Chicken Run!
We arrived in Iowa (pronounced I-way) around 10 am, just a 20-ish minute drive from Lake Charles, Louisiana – but already, “les bon temp roulez” – the good times, they were a rollin! You could hear the zydeco from blocks away. Driving down state highway 90, the party announces itself at the Knights of Columbus Hall at the southern end of town.
There were dozens of ATVs decorated in the ubiquitous mardi gras colors of Green, Purple and Gold. There were a few trucks pulling flatbed floats, a couple of field-weathered tractors, and some folks on horseback too. Men, women and children milled around, some in costumes, everyone offering welcoming smiles.
Cajun Mardi Gras
Cajun mardi gras costumes are a far cry from the glamor and glitz of the Royal Krewes of Lake Charles and New Orleans. At their most basic, the costumes are t-shirts and overalls with some fringed fabric trim stitched on. At their most elaborate, they involve hinge-up chicken wire face masks with pointy noses and googly eyes, peaked caps and psychedelic fabrics and fringe that look, quite frankly, like a KKK cloak went on an acid trip.
THEY ARE AMAZING!
Some are made with the kitschiest kitty fabric, others full of tinsel and glitter – if you need some inspiration, stop by the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu to see a number of costumes up close and personal.
I spoke with a number of locals, who explained that the shape and form came from an intention to mock the upper ranks of the Catholic Church: pointed hats, elaborate robes and luxurious shawls were the realm of the powerful clergy, and the folks of the bayou didn’t really appreciate their haughtiness. Mardi gras stems from the festivities preceding the onset of Catholic Lent, a time of debauchery before the fasting Lent requires. While the local population varies in their religious orientation, everyone enjoys the communal festivities!
Celebrating Cajun Mardi Gras Traditions
The Chicken Run itself is a rural Cajun mardi gras celebration taking its cue from centuries of tradition, but holding on by sheer will. Originally initiated as a potluck that gathered communal gumbo ingredients by going door to door to the neighbors, often resulting in the chasing of a pullet for the pot, today the Iowa Chicken Run is presided over by Rodney Victorian.
Rodney’s grandfather rebooted the faltering tradition over 38 years ago, and he sees it as his mission to continue the run, maintaining a connection between generations of families. A battered straw cowboy hat on his head, a whistle gripped between smiling lips, Rodney’s signal starts the festivities.
How the Iowa Chicken Run Works
After a prayer in English and a lilting Cajun invocation, the ATVs roar out, followed by the truck floats. The lead float features the zydeco band and two cages with four honorary chickens. For the next few hours, we ride along the rural highway and through the neighborhood streets of Iowa, tossing candies and necklaces to folks along the road shouting “throw me something mister!”
Every half mile or so – and sometimes every house or two – Rodney blows his whistle, everyone stops, pile out of cars, ATVs, and into front yards, side yards, church yards. Rodney pulls a chicken out of the cage and shouts “Who wants some gumbo??”
Children cheer, and a panicky Rhode Island Red gets launched into the sky – a flutter of feathers, a clamoring of children and a chase ensue – rushing across the neighbor’s garden patch (a smart chicken found refuge amongst the thorns of a raspberry bush), through the adjacent field and around the back. The proud child that catches the chicken beams even more when Rodney offers a dollar to “buy” the chicken.
This catch and release program is just for fun, the real chicken gumbo has already been cooking since dawn!
Cajun Mardi Gras Dance Party
At some stops, there’s a dance off. The band circles around on a driveway and a shuffle step starts. The residents laugh and clap and hand Rodney grocery bags full of additions for the gumbo – more boudin, some okra.
This raucous assemblage rolls through Iowa for more than three hours, picking up participants along the way. All you need to join is a smile. We shared our float with local neighbors and a student from Switzerland; folks visiting from Michigan and California; everyone united with smiles, dance and fun.
Know Before You Go
There are a few towns in SW Louisiana that have chicken runs. The Iowa Chicken Run is one of the largest with a few hundred participants and a police escort.
- Arrival: Arrive at the Knights of Columbus Hall between 9 – 9:30am to settle in.
- Ride a float: To ride a float all you need to do is ask. Be aware that the event can take up to four hours.
- Toilets: Some floats have porta potties on board, and there are a few stops with public toilets.
- Snacks and Water: Bring some snacks, water, juice; adult beverages are also welcome! Some folks along the way sell food and water as well.
- Food and drink sales: Some folks along the way sell food and water as well.
- Kids welcome? This is a very family friendly adventure, with children of all ages riding floats and chasing chickens.
Cajun Mardi Gras Costumes
The Iowa Chicken Run does not require costumes, but festive participation is always welcome!
- What to bring: Bring some mardi gras beads, candies and other treats to throw to the spectators
- What to wear: Wear some green, gold and purple sparkles, and you’re sure to have a great time.
- Where to buy: The Mardi Gras store in Lake Charles is a super opportunity to get your festive gear.
- Gumbo: The communal gumbo party takes place at the Knights of Columbus Hall after the parade
- Costs $5 per child or $10 per adult
Where to stay in near Iowa, Louisiana
- We recommend the L’Auberge Casino and Resort in Lake Charles, LA
- Grab the best rates and availability in Lake Charles, Louisiana now!
Many thanks to Visit Lake Charles for hosting me for a food and Mardi Gras celebration. As always, opinions are my own. When they aren’t, you will be the first to know.