Party hearty in Lake Charles, the family-friendly Mardi Gras destination, where kids get their own parade, and there’s another for classic cars and hot rods. One of the traditions of Mardi Gras in Lake Charles is the Chicken Run.
Local legend says it commemorates a dash by a desperate housewife eons ago, going house to house to her neighbors asking for a missing ingredient for her gumbo pot. These days, the annual event collects shrimp, chicken, sausages, okra, potatoes and spices for a gumbo big enough to serve hundreds of residents and visitors at an outdoor street fair that includes Cajun and Zydeco music and dancing.
The Chicken Run is on January 30th, along with a City of Sulphur Mardis Gras Festival downtown, also with music, of course, and a “taste off” for the best King cakes. Don’t know what King cake is?
There are many family recipes and local preferences, as there are with Louisiana gumbo, your Nona’s meatballs, Aunt Sylvia’s potroast, and my mother’s German-style potato salad. This recipe from Southern Living magazine is one style. What all the recipes have in common though, is the tiny plastic figure of baby Jesus – the King – backed into the cake. Tradition says the person who gets that piece will have good luck for the coming year.
Food is an important part of life in Lake Charles year-round, not just at Mardi Gras. These are my favorite restaurants from a recent visit:
Steamboat Bill’s, whose motto is “boiled with pride”, serves up heaping platters of shrimp, crab and crawfish. Rows of red formica tables are stocked with rolls of paper towels to use as napkins. Try an order of ‘gator bites, fried dough balls the size of golf balls, filled with ground bits of farm-raised local alligator. And get there early for lunch or sinner, since lines can get long.
Pat’s of Henderson is more formal, and a popular lunch spot for local business people. Anything on the extensive menu can be topped with shrimp or crab etouffee, and crawfish or shrimp can be ordered as bisque, stew, gumbo, stuffed, au gratin or fried.
Children’s Day is Sunday, Feb. 7th, with a kids’ parade and a street fair, both free. And the day ends with a Lighted Boat Parade on Lake Charles. Either watch the brightly decorated boats from the shoreline, or hop aboard one of the Lake Charles sightseeing boats for a magical cruise.
There are enough Lake Charles Mardi Gras events that the city has issued a mobile app to help you plan and keep track.
Mardi Gras or any time, be sure to visit the Mardi Gras Museum, in a former schoolhouse downtown. There’s a glittering collection of fanciful and bejeweled costumes, some of which weigh as much as 80 pounds. You’ll quickly appreciate the amount of work it takes to design and embroider them, and the engineering required to keep a glittering feathered and beaded headdress upright. I cannot comprehend that these marvelous Mardi Gras costumes are worn only once.
I also loved the city tour, which included the Charpentier District, a gem of buildings dating as far back as the Civil War. Many of the homes were built by wealthy sawmill owners, who turned their Victorian houses into advertisements, with fanciful gingerbread trim and intricate cupolas.
My guide also told me about a famous former resident. Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Angels in America” grew up in Lake Charles. His father was the maestro of the local symphony, and his family worshiped at the solid brick Temple Sinai across from the old Post Office downtown.
I stayed at the L’Auberge, a 1,000 room casino hotel that looks and feels like it was moved in one piece from the Las Vegas strip. It shares a Tom Fazio golf course with the Golden Nugget, slightly smaller with 740 rooms, but the same glitzy Vegas feel. It’s a five-minute walk between the two, or take the free trolley.
photo of steamed shrimp platter courtesy Culinary Traveler.