Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mardi Gras, Cajun Style

This is how Fat Tuesday is celebrated in the Cajun parishes of southern Louisiana.

It’s called the Courir de Mardi Gras, and it’s an ancient tradition that dates back to the middle ages. Bands of masked and costumed revelers set out early in the morning on horseback and in hay wagons to rove from farm to farm. Singing and dancing (and drinking—a lot), they beg the ingredients for a traditional gumbo, namely rice, onions, garlic, sausages, and chickens.

The chickens are the real prizes, since they’re thrown into the air and the riders compete with each other to grab them, scrambling through rice fields and crawfish ditches. The result tends to involve a lot of mud.

The Cajuns of Louisiana are descendants of the French farmers who settled in what was once called Acadia but is now Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1604 (that’s sixteen years before the sailing of the Mayflower). There they lived and prospered for generations until Britain conquered Acadia and, in 1755, subjected the area to a ruthless “ethnic cleansing.” The villages and farms of the French Catholics were burned, their inhabitants driven out. More than half—men, women, and children by the thousands—died. Many of those who survived made their way to southern Louisiana, where their descendants still form a recognizable community, speaking a strange, eighteenth-century French dialect, cooking incredibly spicy food, making wonderful, foot-tapping music, and riding in the annual courir de Mardi Gras.

While the participants in the Courir de Mardi Gras are off riding around the countryside, everyone else is in town, listening to Zydeco music, dancing, eating, and waiting for the riders to return. They generally stagger back into town around three o’clock, proudly bearing the results of their quest as they parade through the streets in a rowdy display that typically includes some pretty amazing equestrian acrobatics. Think about dancing (drunk) on top of your saddle while your horse is walking through a roaring crowd. Think about dancing drunk on top of your saddle while holding a squawking chicken.

The costumes are traditional, colorful smocks and trousers decorated with patches and fringe. The conical hats are called capuchons, and are meant to mock the pointed hats worn by the noblewomen of the middle ages. One also sees miters and mortarboards, for the whole point (originally) was to make fun of the wealthy, the ordained, and the well educated. The masks are made of window screens and can be quite elaborate.

The day ends with a communal feast of gumbo and a fais-do-do, or street dance. And since I sent my book winging on its way (finally!) to New York on Lundi Gras (the Monday before Mardi Gras), I was able to relax and have a very good time.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Car Full of Roses for Valentine’s Day

Steve and I spent the Saturday before Katrina at City Park’s Botanic Gardens Plant Sale. Every couple of months, the volunteers at the Pelican Greenhouse used to help raise money for the park by putting on a sale of old-fashioned plants and roses that do well in New Orleans (not all green things love our heat and humidity). There weren’t a lot of people at the sale that morning, which surprised us until we were driving home up Metairie Road and saw shops with big signs in the window that read, CLOSED FOR HURRICANE. We looked at each other and said, “Hurricane? What hurricane?” (From which you can tell we don’t watch much television and so were oblivious to the fact that the hurricane that was supposed to be heading for Florida had shifted to take aim at us.)

A couple months later, we took time off from working on our gutted house to go look at what the hurricane had done to City Park. We had to drive the long way around to get to the Pelican Greenhouse because there was STILL water sitting in the dip under the railroad tracks. The greenhouse itself was a shattered wreck; the pots of the plants that hadn’t sold that fateful Saturday were strewn about wherever the receding floodwaters had left them. We’d been attending those plant sales regularly since before we were even married; a lot of wonderful memories of good times, sunshine, and laughter were associated with that greenhouse. Steve parked the car and we just sat in silence for a moment, looking at it.

If you’re wondering why I’m blogging about this now, it’s because last Saturday, on Valentine’s Day, City Park had its first Pelican Greenhouse sale since Katrina. It’s taken them a long time to get the greenhouse back up and running, and they’re still trying to replace all their cutting stock. Volunteers were going around the sale asking regulars, “Do you have a Phyllis Byde? You do! Can we have cuttings?”

It’s nice to be able to give back, after all the joy those sales have given me.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Scorched Earth


I love Australia. I love the people, the animals, the land. I lived in Adelaide longer than I have ever lived anyplace else, and a part of me will always call Australia home. Watching the fires burn across Victoria these last few days has left me sick at heart.

I know what it's like to hear the roar of a bushfire descending on your home, to see the walls glow red from the flames. But I was lucky; the bushfire that threatened my house in the hills above Adelaide stopped a few hundred feet away. Ironically, I would use the "list of things to take in a bushfire" I drew up after that event a few years later to evacuate for Katrina.

Seeing the devastation left by these fires has me thinking, inevitably, about Katrina. Australia is talking about forming a reconstruction commission to oversee the rebuilding of the devastated areas. After Cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin in the 70's, a Reconstruction Commission was formed with the task of rebuilding the city in five years. They accomplished the task in three.

It's been three and a half years since Katrina, and New Orleans is still a mess. I'm thinking we should have brought in the Aussies.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

And So It Begins…

It’s Mardi Gras time again here in New Orleans. Time for the glint of sunlight on a soaring string of beads, the foot-tapping beat of the drums, the biggest of grins on the littlest of kids.

This is the Krewe of Driftwood, a local neighborhood parade that comes at the beginning of the season and is always a blast. The weather was glorious, the day grand.

But you know what really sucks?

Having a book due five days after Mardi Gras.