Chicken on the Run Near Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once. – Chris Rose
To really understand what a Chicken Run is, you must understand the cultural significance of the above statement.
Zydeco music was playing by a live band in the back of a parade-like float being pulled by a tractor trailer. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, an old man with a shiny washboard on his chest, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and strumming his fingers to the music alongside a young man playing the accordion.
Then I saw the leader of the group, Rodney Victorian. He was the grandson of one of the founders of the Iowa (pronounced “Ioway”) Chicken Run. Iowa is a small town outside of Lake Charles with a population of about 3000. The Iowa Chicken Run had been started to keep the heritage and cultural traditions of Southwest Louisiana alive for future generations. Rodney was a cowboy hat-wearing, happy-faced Louisianan. Everyone here knows he has the passion and spirit of his grandfather. This is HIS event and just watching him enjoy it. You can instantly tell he does this for the love of the event and what it represents. Then, with the blowing of the whistle, the caravan begins…
Chicken on the Run Near Lake Charles, Louisiana
Coming into this scene, at first, I thought, “what on earth is this?” but more visuals began to appear – cages of chickens being pulled in a trailer with a zydeco band, hundreds of ATV’s, and people gathering around in droves.
The people were dressed in customary costumes (purple, green, and gold were the colors of the day).
They had congregated in a spot off of Highway 90 for the annual Iowa Chicken Run. Honestly, I have never seen anything like it, as it had a sort of a party vibe to it and delivered a true backcountry Louisiana experience of Mardi Gras. It was much different than anything that goes on in New Orleans or Lake Charles for sure. I had spoken to quite a few people from Louisiana, who had heard of chicken runs but had never experienced one themselves, so they certainly are a very distinct cultural tradition in this area.
So, what the Heck IS a Chicken Run? Chicken on the RUN!
Apparently, it is a rural Mardi Gras tradition in parts of Southwest Louisiana. My impression of the area is that the people here are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. Life may be simple here, but these people sure do know how to make you feel welcome and at home.
Let me explain: Basically, the Chicken Run is a ceremonial re-enactment of the past when people used to go house to house and gather ingredients to make a large vat of gumbo.
Gumbo is a stew or a thick soup that is primarily made with chicken and vegetables, but really it can be made with just about anything: shrimp, pork, beef, plus all kinds of vegetables from okra to collard greens to tomatoes. It originated in Southern Louisiana in the 18th century. During this time, the locals created what has become somewhat of a parade today, where they go into rural areas, stop at homes, and ask the homeowners for one or two ingredients for the gumbo.
In the meantime, some owners used to offer up a chicken, so today, they bring the chickens in cages and one guy then grabs a chicken, hangs it upside down in a crowd, and then lets it loose!
The kids go wild and start to chase the chicken until someone catches it.
The symbolism here is that it would go into the chicken gumbo, but Rodney get’s the chickens back and puts them back in the cages. They then rotate the chickens for the next stop.
Chicken on the Run Near Lake Charles, Louisiana
So this goes on and on from house to house, gathering the ingredients until the make the final stop at a large open area, where a communal pot of gumbo is waiting for everyone to try!
The “Iowa Chicken Run” is considered an authentic Cajun Mardi Gras event in that you are riding on a “hayride” chasing after a chicken on the run. We stopped at different homes along the way and toe taped to zydeco music till we received the ingredients we needed to make the communal gumbo, which was served on the final stop.
A Chicken on the Run! Lake Charles, Louisiana
Iowa Chicken Run – This was the 38th annual Iowa Chicken run and follows a route along Highway 90 in Iowa, LA. The doors open at 8 am at the Knights of Columbus Hall, the floats start the line up at 9 am and then parade route starts at 10 am, finishing around 1 pm, just in time for some… you guessed it! Gumbo and a zydeco dance! This is practically a day long even that runs like a community parade. You can pay a small fee to be on one of the floats as it winds its way through the community. At each stop, Rodney will get the chickens out, talk to the homeowner, dance to the zydeco music, then hang the chicken upside down and let it go in the yard full of kids.
Disclosure: My trip to the Iowa Chicken Run was sponsored by the Lake Charles, Louisiana Tourism Board.