When most people think of Mardi Gras, they picture parties powered by booze, strings upon strings of beads and elaborate costumes decked out in sequins and feathers. It’s not an inaccurate picture of Mardi Gras by any stretch of the imagination, but what many people don’t realize is that the celebration has evolved over the years and isn’t the way it used to be.
In years past, many Mardi Gras celebrations used to involve something known as the chicken run, where chickens were tossed out into the wild and children chased and caught them. Upon catching the chickens, their necks were wrung and then they were used in the communal pot of gumbo. People wore simple clothing in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of green, gold and purple to frighten the chickens. Instead of fancy costumes, these were often made out of scraps and masks were simply eye coverings.
The traditional Mardi Gras chicken run has all but died out, but in Iowa, Louisiana, a small town of just under 3,000 people, the ritual lives on. Every year for more than 30 years, community members have gathered for an annual chicken run parade that includes the customary costumes, several chicken throws, zydeco music, dancing for gumbo ingredients and a block party vibe that brings the community together.
The Iowa Chicken Run is practically a day-long event but it runs on the schedule of the community parade, which consists of several rudimentary floats, which people can pay a small fee to ride on. Along the parade route, which winds through the community, there are several stops. At each stop, the parade captain does one of two things, and sometimes both.
First, he may throw a chicken. If this is the case, all of the children gather around, and once the bird is tossed into the air, they all go chasing after it. The chicken may dash under houses or cars, or he may just head wherever he deems is safest. I watched several chicken throws, and I was impressed how long a single bird can outsmart several people. It used to be that once these birds were caught, they were killed, but today they’re just recollected and given back to their rightful owners after the festivities.
Second, several families along the parade route have agreed to donate ingredients to the community gumbo, but these ingredients aren’t free. Instead, at each house, people from the parade floats have to hop off and dance to zydeco music. When the families think the dancers have performed well enough, they are given their ingredients so that, by the end of the parade route, all of the ingredients (including the chickens) have been gathered … not to mention the fact that a serious appetite has been worked up!
Once the parade has reached the end, the gumbo is prepared and all the parade’s participants are invited to join in with the community meal. The Iowa Chicken Run concludes with a zydeco dance, which happens in the evening.
The tradition of the Chicken Run is deeply rooted in Iowa’s culture, and the parade leading up to the great gumbo feast isn’t just a series of actions that need to be followed in order to reach the end result. Because of the intimacy of the community, many people on the floats know each other well, and every stop along the parade route is a chance for people to interact with their neighbors. People tip back beers, kids play (when they aren’t chasing chickens), friends hug and laugh. Taking time to seek out the Iowa Chicken Run isn’t only a new way to experience old Mardi Gras traditions; it’s an excellent way to immerse yourself in the local culture of a small town in Southwest Louisiana.
My experience at the Iowa Chicken Run was organized by the Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau, but all opinions are my own.