by Jeanette Valentine on Soul Of America
On the night of Mardi Gras, gyrating revelers in Lake Charles, Louisiana are flinging purple, gold and green beads from floats blasting Zydeco music. Hundreds along the parade route are catching the coveted “throws” while bouncing to the beat.
Party goers have consumed gallons of chicken gumbo, devoured miles of boudin sausages and downed enough King Cake to feed a sugar-addicted army. Two days earlier on Children’s Day, youngsters tossed beads from their own parade. A week before that, grandparents two stepped at their own formal ball.
And nowhere to be found is the boozy behavior that would prompt a Mom to cover her kiddies’ eyes. In fact, Lake Charles cordons off an alcohol-free, no-smoking zone just for the younger set.
Welcome to Fat Tuesday in this Southwestern Louisiana city of about 122,000 just an hour’s flight east of Houston and a short drive west of Baton Rouge. Mardi Gras here (the second-largest in the state) has a family-friendly style that puts visitors in the middle of the action. You can attend a formal ball, hob nob with pageant royalty and feast on Shrimp Etouffee at a community feed.
“It’s been a great time,” says Ron O’Neal, visiting from Flower Mound, Texas. “I appreciate the excitement and enthusiasm. In New Orleans, I don’t get a chance to talk with the participants and the contestants. I love that I can be up close.”
During a whirlwind four days, here’s what I enjoyed:
The Krewe* of Illusions Presentation and Formal Ball:
A styling Cab Calloway crooned “Hi- Di – Ho,” Donna Summer belted out “Last Dance” and a sharply choreographed Liza Minnelli broke into Beyonce’s “Put a Ring on It.”
They were among dozens of stand-out impersonators that took the stage during the Krewe of Illusions’ Presentation, a skit show that featured incredible local talent. Many krewes in Lake Charles stage theatrical productions, and the Krewe of Illusions show at the Lake Charles Civic Center is open to the public.
The presentation drew a diverse crowd dressed to the nines. And with this year’s theme of “American Musical Songs of the 20th Century,” African-American music served as soundtrack for many of the evening’s skits.
The debonair Calloway danced to “Minnie the Moocher” during a Cotton Club number, and Josephine Baker, in a stunning pink leotard outfit with a beautifully matching headdress, did the Banana Dance. Disco Era favorites included “Last Dance” by Summers and “Car Wash” by Rose Royce, and cast members sang Edwin Starr’s “War” while portraying Vietnam protestors.
In keeping with the diversity of America, the show included an eclectic mix of music – from Burlesque and Can-Can reviews to Minnie Pearl and the Grand Ole Opry.
This was my first glimpse of the renowned Mardi Gras regalia, costumes and gowns seemingly created by Hollywood wardrobe magicians with unlimited budgets. Performers wore sequins and glitter, some sporting headdresses eight feet tall, weighing as many as 50 pounds. Never to be worn in more than one year’s Mardi Gras, many costumes are donated to the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu. See article below about the museum.
More than two hours of performances had the audience clapping, swaying and finally taking to their feet in a standing ovation.
Following the presentation, the Krewe of Illusions held its formal ball, also open to the public and held in the Civic Center. Though evening-gowned and tuxedoed to the nth degree, the crowd could not have been more down-to earth. Balloons, streamers and party decorations festooned the room, where tables were laden with home-brought goodies that included chips, cupcakes, and candies. It was the best of both worlds – the glitz and glam of a ball with the informality of a group of friends getting together.
* A krewe is an organization or group that stages the parades, balls and special events each season.
Sporting mirrored shades and a tall, gray Stetson, Rodney Victorian projected the epitome of cool – even decked in a head-to-toe yellow outfit with fringes made to look like feathers. His handsome, bearded face broke into a grin as he hoisted a live chicken skyward. The crowd of kids surrounding him, none older than 10, bounced in anticipation. Rodney dropped the startled fowl, which took off like a shot down the road, and the children pounded the dirt in hot pursuit.
The Chicken Run is a decades old Mardi Gras tradition that the city of Iowa (pronounced “I ah WAY”) celebrates big time. Rodney’s late father, Willie Bushnell, coordinated the first event in 1979, bringing the outrageously raucous ritual from his hometown of Oberlin, Louisiana to this small, close-knit community 10 miles east of Lake Charles.
The day began early with local chefs cooking a community feast at the Knights of Columbus Hall. Under a large carport attached to the hall, Ricky Prejean manned a huge grill covered in sizzling links. Vats of gumbo simmered in the hall’s kitchen.
In days gone by, the fowl participating in the Chicken Run were running for an important reason – to avoid being the main ingredient in the gumbo. “It’s an old tradition,” said Helen Bushnell, daughter of Willie. “But we buy the chicken now. We’ve gotten civilized,” she chuckled.
The Chicken Run is a mobile affair, journeying by parade through the main roads of this city of modest brick and clapboard houses. Seven plump birds nervously clucked in cages loaded onto one of the floats.
Children, teenagers, couples, seniors and families lined the parade route, shouting for beads. Each mile or so, Rodney signaled the caravan to stop. Residents emerged from their homes bearing gifts for the gumbo, such as rice or sausage. In exchange for the food, senior citizen Lionel Mott with a washboard hanging from his neck and his 15-year-old nephew, Ryan Perkins, carrying an accordion, climbed down from a float and begin playing lively Zydeco music as a crowd gathered round and danced.
During each stop, Rodney lifted up a chicken during this post-ingredient-exchange concert. And every time he dropped a bird, the children were hot on its tail, zipping around the yards and attempting to crawl under trailers and cars to force out their prey.
“I love to see the children, the excitement in their eyes when they’re looking at something that’s not a computer or a television,” says Joi Bernard, an Iowa native who recently moved back to her hometown from the East Coast. “There’s not much strategy. You run and catch a chicken and everybody applauds. You get your praise on.”
The Children’s Parade, The Krewe of Krewes Parade
Just minutes before the Lake Charles Children’s Parade began, Little Miss Black Heritage Gabriella Woods was riveted to a video game on her mother’s pink smart phone. Oblivious to the scene around her, she sat perched in a convertible waiting to join the procession. When a photographer asked to take her picture, Moms whisked away the electronic distraction, and Gabriella was ON.
She primped and posed and preened and smiled, offering up the kind of cute that makes this parade so special in Lake Charles.
Parades in general are fanciful events, but nothing beats having children as the main attraction. Scores of floats brimmed with little ones – from babes in arms and toddlers to adolescents and teens. Little girls giggled and danced, little boys shouted and wrestled, and nearby speakers pumped out Usher and Katy Perry. More than 120 entries – floats, cars, trucks and other moving vehicles – participated this year, even more than for the grand finale Krewe of Krewe Parade on Mardi Gras afternoon.
Our group was lucky enough to ride as guests on a float sponsored by the Lake Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau. We climbed aboard what looked like a gargantuan reclining replica of Gumbeaux (pronounced “gumbo”) Gator, the official mascot of Southwest Louisiana. The vehicle was stockpiled with throws, cups and imitation doubloons (gold coins).
When it comes to float philosophy, the adage “it is better to give than to receive” holds true. With the music pounding, parade goers yelling and a mountain of beads at my disposal, I felt a surge of goodwill toward mankind. As the parade made its way through the streets of Lake Charles, I perfected a steady, three-beat rhythm: Wind up, aim, throw. Wind up, aim, throw. Wind up, aim, throw.
Two days later, I stood on the sidelines of the Krewe of Krewe Parade, which fielded 78 entries, and learned that being on the receiving end of the throws is another experience entirely. My colleagues and I were settled around bleachers next to the parade route, and we could hear the music blasting long before the first floats came into view.
As a float rider, the excitement came from seeing the delighted faces as you toss out the bounty. When you’re standing along the parade route shouting, “Throw me some beads, Mister,” the thrill lies simply in catching everything thrown your way. Scrambling to snag “throws” is like playing center field where every ball is a potential home run. “Play that Funky Music, White Boy” and “I Will Survive” blasted from passing floats, and I was running left, then right while shouting myself hoarse. It was definitely different than the action on the float.
But, as with my experience in the Children’s Parade, I still felt a part of something larger than life.
Taste de la Louisiane
A line to enter a community dinner called “Taste de la Louisiane” snaked out the door, along one inside wall and down another of the Civic Center. For just $7, hungry folks could sample some of the finest local fare around.
The aroma of simmering gumbo and Shrimp Etoufee, fried cat fish and other delicacies wafted through the packed dining room. The line led to long tables heavy with pans of white rice and dozens of heaping serving dishes.
No fancy table cloths. No silver utensils. Diners grabbed plastic forks and piled paper plates high with some of this, a little of that and a spoon of what’s over there.
The air hummed with families and neighbors shooting the breeze while chowing down. Several Mardi Gras pageant queens sat patiently while folks snapped their photos, and kids ran around the tables. There was laughter everywhere.
Joe Heacook, executive chef and owner of Cookey’s Caterers, who was responsible for the meal, began cooking the day before at 5 a.m. When it was over, more than 1,800 people had sampled his cuisine.
The Royal Gala
If the Krewe of Krewe Parade is the main entrée of Mardi Gras, then the Royal Gala is a tantalizing appetizer. The kings, queens and royal court of more than 40 krewes spend the night of Lundi Gras (evening before Fat Tuesday) strutting their stuff in this elaborate floor show at the Civic Center.
Backstage, krewe members buzzed about in outfits ranging from Oscar-worthy evening wear to 40s-inspired gangster pinstripes to Elvis’s white pants suit to Cleopatra’s slinky sequenced gown. A duo outfitted like oak trees stood near a pair dressed like orange-beaked chickens not too far from a trio of pink tutu-ed, blond-wigged He-men posing in white leather boots.
But most impressive was the royal regalia, costumes featuring plumes of feathers erupting from the elaborate headdresses. They’re shimmering, sparkling structures of rainbow hues – fluorescent pinks, screaming yellows, brilliant blues and outrageous oranges, among others.
“I like participating in the Gala because it gives us the opportunity to observe the other krewes pageantry and enlightens us on the themes of each krewe,” said Herman Joseph, president of La Krewe Des Gens Extraordinaire.
The Royal Gala kicked off with the Mardi Gras 12th Night Revelers. These goodwill ambassadors – ubiquitous in their sparkly red and purple court jester costumes – pranced the length of the floor to the sounds of bouncy jazz music. Next up were the Mardi Gras Queens of Southwest Louisiana, ranging in age from youngsters to twenty-somethings, who each were spotlighted as they made their way to thrones at the end of the arena.
And finally, each krewe got its time to shine. With pop and R&B tunes thundering and the spotlight sweeping the arena, the Kings and Queens and their court strutted down the floor as the MC described the organization and its mission. Decked in their majestic finery, this was each krewe’s introduction to the public before the following day’s Krewe of Krewes Parade.
B&O Kitchen Grocery
3011 E. Burton Street, Sulphur, LA
Some foods exemplify southern cooking, and in Lake Charles, boudin sausage is one of the symbols of culinary excellence. A mixture of pork, liver, rice, onions and seasonings, the sausage’s influence is so widespread that the region offers foodies a Southwestern Louisiana Boudin Trail. It maps 29 meat markets, grocery stores, cafes and other outlets – all claiming to serve the best in the area.
One early morning, we visited B&O Kitchen Grocery and met Jeff Benoit, whose family has been in the sausage-making business for almost 30 years. His 83-year-old mother, Corita, greeted us from behind the cash register.
Jeff held forth on the history of the business, the routine of production and the quality of the product. In the background, a refrigerated display case showed off freshly made meats that would cause hard-core carnivores to salivate. Menu offerings include hog head cheese, crackling, beef jerky, stuffed pork bellies, boudin balls, sausage-stuffed chickens and such delicacies as pickled quails eggs.
Delicious Donuts and the King Cake
2283 Country Club Road, Lake Charles, LA
During a King Cake-decorating session with Paula Stevens, owner of Delicious Donuts, we learned that no Mardi Gras celebration is complete without the colorful confection. Stevens and her brother, Lucas, started their bakery 19 years ago, and currently the business assembles and bakes up to 4,000 King Cakes each season.
She explained that the name comes from the three kings who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. A tiny plastic baby toy representing the infant is hidden inside each cake. According to custom, the person whose slice includes the baby must bring a King Cake to the next celebration.
The oval baked good tastes like a sweet coffee cake. It’s drizzled in white icing, decorated with sprinkles and stuffed with a filling, which can include strawberry, blueberry, lemon, pineapple and pecan praline. My group got the chance to decorate our own King Cakes, slathering icing, flicking sprinkles of gold, purple and green and placing a mask and beads just so across the dessert.
And how does Delicious Donuts’ King Cake compare with the cakes made by other bakeries? Most bakers would claim that their own King Cake is the tastiest around, but Paula was more humble (and classy). “I’m sure they have their place in the world,” she said of the competition.
The bakery will overnight cakes to your home.
Lake Charles 1911 Historic City Hall Arts & Cultural Center
1001 Ryan Street, Lake Charles, LA
Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calctsieu
located at the Central School Arts & Humanities Center
809 Kirby Street, Lake Charles LA
The Black Heritage Gallery
located at the Central School Arts & Humanities Center
809 Kirby Street, Lake Charles, LA
The Imperial Calcasieu Museum
204 West Sallier Street, Lake Charles, LA
When you’re looking for a respite from the frenzy of Mardi Gras, several places in town offer a glimpse of local culture in a more subdued manner.
Built almost a hundred years ago, the stately Lake Charles 1911 Historic City Hall underwent a major renovation in 2004 and now serves as an arts and cultural center. Three floors of gallery welcomes international, national and local artists. During my visit, the exhibit space hosted a collection called “African Art,” featuring works created by artists from across the motherland, including the Republic of the Congo, South Africa, Burkino Faso and Cote d’Ivoire.
The largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes in Louisiana makes its home in the Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu (Calcasieu is the parish, or county, in which Lake Charles is located). The museum is inside the Central School Arts & Humanities Center. From the entrance, you’ll wander a path past scores of elaborate, rhinestone-studded outfits with gigantic headdresses; sparkly masks, crowns and scepters and all manner of party paraphernalia. It’s as if the royal courts of Fat Tuesdays past stand frozen in time, showing off their elaborate outfits for posterity.
Just down the hall is the Black Heritage Gallery, which showcases African-American art, music, literature and other media with an emphasis on Calcasieu Parish. Unfortunately, the gallery was closed on the day we visited.
The Imperial Calcasieu Museum was built in 1963, its brick structure containing beams and flooring from the former Missouri Pacific Railroad Depot. In the hushed interior you’ll find artifacts and memorabilia dating to the mid 1800s. None are more striking than the rooms recreated to resemble living quarters of an actual home in Calcasieu and nearby Allen, Beauregard, Cameron and Jeff Davis parishes.
The Margaret Place Historic District is an enclave of privately owned homes that comprise the oldest recorded subdivision in Calcasieu Parish. Bordered by Griffith Coulee, Shell Beach Drive, the Pithon Coulee, and the North side of South Ryan – the neighborhood features a variety of houses constructed in the early 1900s. A walk or carriage ride through the neighborhood makes for a relaxing afternoon.
Harold Guillory and Zydeco Dance Lessons
Louisiana Zydeco Live
Harold Guillory recalled recently venturing to the grocery store wearing mirrored shades and a baseball cap. A woman came up to him to ask, “Are you Usher?”
Harold – who owns Louisiana Zydeco Live, a television dance show, ala “Soul Train” – laughed at the notion. But it’s not far off the mark. Easy-on-the-eyes with a rock-solid physique like the R&B superstar, Harold also has dance moves that put him in a league of his own. The difference is that Harold’s specialty is Zydeco.
Our group reaped the benefit of his expertise one afternoon during a private dance lesson. Harold first led us through the box step, which dance-floor experts know as the basic movement in Chicago Stepping and Salsa. Gradually, he added music, then more complicated steps until we were dancing Zydeco like Louisiana natives (okay, I’m exaggerating. At least we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves at a party.) Someone asked Harold how Zydeco compares to Cajun music.
“The music is kind of similar and kind of a little different,” he said. “It’s like the difference between rock and roll and R&B. “Back in the day, you had Elvis Presley and James Brown. Zydeco is a little bit spicier.”
Harold is available for private lessons.
Where to Eat in Lake Charles:
Harlequin Steaks & Seafood
501 West College, Lake Charles, LA
Harelquin Steaks and Seafood is ideal for a formal meal in an elegant setting. Hushed and dimly lit, the restaurant seems especially fitting for romantic dining. I found the portions ample, the service quick and was pleased that the waiter was unobtrusive, yet anticipated our needs. The rich, smoky gumbo had enough spice to give the broth a kick without being overpowering. Moist and flavorful, the New York steak was the best I’d eaten in a long time. We ate at Harlequin our first evening, and its Mrs. Hunters’ Bread Pudding, rich and creamy, set a high standard for desserts for the rest of the trip.
Steamboat Bill’s On the Lake
1004 Lakeshore Drive, Lake Charles, LA
Steamboat Bill’s Broad Street and Highway 14
732 South Martin Luther King Highway, Lake Charles, LA
If you’re a serious crawfish connoisseur, head to Steamboat Bill’s as soon as you cross the Lake Charles city limit. Locals tell me it’s the best place to roll up your sleeves, grab the round, yellow seasoning container at the ready and attack ginormous platters of the shellfish. Having never eaten crawfish (I know, I know), I was lucky enough to get a mini lesson here – grab the body, twist its head off and pull out the sweet meat to dip in a Thousand Island dressing. Be sure to try the Boudin (sausage) balls and pistolette, a fried bread roll stuffed with cheesy shrimp filling, which is unique to Southwest Louisiana.
Big Daddy’s Sports Grill
1737 West Sale Road, Lake Charles, LA
The yellow walls of Big Daddy’s laughter-filled dining area are covered with memorabilia. Besides serving good, sticks-to-your-ribs comfort bar food, the place is a museum for sports fans. Photos of Louisiana State University Tigers and New Orleans Saints football teams and players dominate. But there’s also NFL Running Back Emmitt Smith’s Dallas Cowboys jersey, a McNeese University cheerleading outfit and photos of local Little League teams.
I have a hamburger and fries, which are superb. The general consensus among my lunch mates – some of whom ordered buffalo wings, gumbo, chef salads and steak – was a unanimous thumbs up. The beignets were my favorite menu item, maybe because I didn’t expect to find them in a sports bar. They were light, crisp and full of flavor.
McFarland’s Celtic Pub
417 Ann Street, Lake Charles, LA
If you want to find a good Irish or Scottish meal in the land of Cajun cuisine, head to McFarland’s. Serving hearty fare in grand portions, McFarland’s offers a nice change of pace to the traditional Mardi Gras fare. I had the pastrami sandwich with a huge side salad that was more than filling. An added bonus of dining here: McFarland’s is the only Lake Charles restaurant where the male servers wear kilts.
Where to Stay:
L’Auberge Casino and Resort Lake Charles
L’Auberge (pronounced Lah – BAYRGE) pulls off the tricky feat of providing a down-home, comfy experience while also offering more than a hint of upscale elegance. It’s equal parts sophistication and simplicity. In that way, it reminds me of Mardi Gras in Lake Charles, where you feel comfortable wearing a Vera Wang evening gown while munching on Pringles potato crisps.
The massive property stands 26-stories tall with 1,000 rooms and suites sitting on 242 acres. My room in the tower was sleek and stylish, with a marble-appointed bathroom that made me feel like a pampered celebrity.
The wood and stone décor was decidedly western, with tasteful elements of the Texas Hill country in evidence throughout (likely because much of the clientele hails from that state). The fireplace lobby and lounge made for the perfect meeting spot for our group.
In addition to the Vegas-style casino and Contraband Bayou Golf Course, amenities abound: a first-class spa and fitness center. A full-service business center. A video arcade and a retail shopping wing and a lobby specially for the off-boarding of tour bus passengers, among other features.
Guests can choose among eight restaurants. The abundant, all-you-can-eat offerings of Le Beaucoup Buffett include Cajun, Asian and Tex-Mex. The tables have white plastic buckets for discarded crab and crawfish shells. On the swankier side, Ember Grille & Wine Bar presents an extensive menu that includes certified Angus, Kobe and Natural Grass Fed beef.
I’m an avid swimmer, and the aquatic facilities alone sold me on L’Auberge. Rather than provide a simple swimming pool, the resort offers a swimming pool experience. In addition to a main pool, a “lazy river” meanders around the tropical-themed outside landscaping, allowing guests to grab an inner tube and float their cares away.
Even on an overcast, slightly chilly day, I was pleasantly surprised to find the water warm and inviting. And because those without children might prefer to be poolside without little ones underfoot, the resort offers a pool and cabanas for only the adults.