Lake Charles, Louisiana:
Land of festivals

Getting out of town for a real
Mardi Gras celebration!

By Joel Okida

LCbrg.jpg

We used to drive

Thru Lafayette and Baton Rouge

In a yellow Camino

Listening to Howling Wolf

He liked to stop in Lake Charles

Cause that's the place that he loved

Did you run about as far as you could go

Down the Louisiana highway

Across Lake Ponchartrain

Now your soul is in Lake Charles

No matter what they say...

~Lucinda Williams

Mardi Gras! Say the words here and most people on the street don't respond with much enthusiasm. There are few real time celebrations on the west coast or at least nothing that compares to events happening in France, Brazil (Carnaval), Italy (Carnevale), Germany (Fasching) and the rest of the world where Mardi Gras and the similar festivals lead up to the Roman Catholic 40-day season of fasting and prayer known as Lent. In the United States, the famous Mardi Gras celebrations are in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama, and date back to French and Spanish colonial times.

Much has been said and written of the New Orleans festivities during Mardi Gras, but the rest of Louisiana has also been offering up their own versions of the colorful occasion. Throughout the parishes of the southwestern half of the state, various activities take place as Fat Tuesday approaches. Small towns still roll out flat bed trucks with local VIPs tossing beads out to the revelers and the "chicken run" rides still paint the rural countryside where the lyrics to the traditional Cajun anthem, La Chanson de Mardi Gras, describe the activities in picturesque detail. (Translated from the French)

The Mardi Gras come from all around, all around the center of town.

They come by once per year, asking for charity.

Sometimes it's a sweet potato, a sweet potato or pork rinds.

The Mardi Gras are on a great journey, all around the center of town.

They come by once per year, asking for charity.

Sometimes it's a skinny chicken, or three or four corn cobs.

Captain, captain, wave your flag, let's go to another neighbor's.

Asking for charity for everyone who'll come join us later,

Everyone who'll come join us later at the gumbo tonight!

LCMGmus2.jpgVariations of this song permeate every parish, every city and every town where it joins other musical tributes to the occasion. The flavor of Mardi Gras is made that much tastier by the songs akin to carols of Christmas, albeit a bit more secular or jocular, and infused by the state's legacy of jazz and blues. Professor Longhair's Go to the Mardi Gras, or Mardi Gras Mambo by the Hawkettes, and of course, When the Saints Come Marching In, by every brass band in the state, help create the aura of the magical time.

Beyond the more rural activities, Lake Charles, 200-plus miles to the west of New Orleans, has risen up the party ladder, creating its own Mardi Gras celebration by providing an all-ages festival experience while underscoring the state's traditions and the city's cultural identity. Lake Charles hosts the largest national celebration outside of New Orleans and showcases a royal gala and a Krewe of Krewes parade, now featuring over 50 of the city's club or community groups (krewes). In addition, there is a sense of inclusion for all the local citizenry to participate or come witness the gala events leading up to the big parade day. In fact, the Lake Charles Mardi Gras atmosphere is the flip side of the bawdy bacchanal of New Orleans. As families line up for a handful of doubloons or a neckful of beads, it's this sense of everybody-is-invited, young and old, for the fun and festivities, that make it special. It's the best of all worlds without any compromise on the pageantry and fanfare.

Looking over the vast blue expanse that Lake Charles, the city, takes its name from, one can see the famous high arching Calcasieu River Bridge. This landmark is perhaps an odd, but powerful symbol of the city that has withstood the ravages of nature and throughout its existence, the struggles of man to preserve it. Also located on the nearby shore is a stark vertical sculpture made from the debris of the Twin Towers. A twisted girder-structure also echoes survival and rebirth. This is a city of history, a city of traditions, and a city that survives through the sheer persistence of its people. It has survived the Great Fire of 1910, the 1918 Hurricane, Hurricane Audrey in 1957, and of course, Katrina and Rita in recent years.

LCfloat.jpgThis city has become a major cultural and educational center in the southwest region of the state. And although it is considered a major center of petrochemical refining and gaming, due to the over 75 festivals held annually, Lake Charles is referred to as the Festival Capital of Louisiana.

Lake Charles has its own Contraband Pirate Days, celebrating the times of infamous adventurer, Jean Lafitte, who hid along the waterways of southwest La, but it's Mardi Gras that brings out the crowds for all the rituals that the annual event provides. Rooted in the pomp and pageantry, food, music, the Fat Tuesday celebration combines the religious with the pagan and assorted ceremonial rites that have been associated with it since its inception back in the 1700s in New Orleans. No matter the size of the towns in the parish, whether rural or urban, everyone gets into the act and the colorful drama that unfolds.

Also important in the Mardi Gras theme is the mixture of the past and the present, the overlapping of cultural motifs, and, of course, the over-the-top presentation of said elements. The feathers and the head-dresses may borrow from the first settlers of Native Americans who lived along the waterways. In fact the Lake Charles' parish, Calcasieu, is named, in French, after Chief Crying Eagle or Quelqueshue in the native tongue. Other themes are taken from more medieval motifs and the references to royalty are many.

LCRoyGal.jpgThe public is invited to see the costumes of the royal courts at the Royal Gala, held the evening before Mardi Gras day. For a nominal fee, the public gets into the Royal "courtyard" to see the sculptural wonders on parade. A costume can rise a nearly a story high and weigh more than 65 pounds. At the Royal Gala, the amazingly constructed costumed damsels and dandies are on promenade around the huge Civic Center where they bow to the Mardi Gras queens and Duke or Duchess of Misrule at the front of the stage. They also do their best to balance the artfully sculptured plumes while mugging for the hundreds of shutterbugs cheering them on. (For a look back, a must-see is the local Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu which houses the largest collection of Mardi Gras costumes in the world.)     

Mardi Gras weekend begins on the Friday before Mardi Gras with the Merchants' Parade. The very full weekend includes a trail ride, various parades, the gumbo cook-offs, music galore, children's activities, and the Krewe of Krewes' Parade on Mardi Gras day.

2010 - Calendar of Events

There are family-friendly activities in the alcohol free zone located downtown along the parade route on Mardi Gras Day

Krewe of the Golden Years - Monday, February 8, 9:00 am -2:00 pm.

Senior citizens who have passed down Mardi Gras traditions celebrate the season with food and a Mardi Gras ball. Free to seniors 60 and up. Lake Charles Civic Center

Merchants' Parade - Friday, February 12, 7:00 pm

Downtown-Midtown Lake Charles

Carlyss Mardi Gras Trail Ride - Saturday, Feb 13, 8:30 am.

From the West Cal Arena in Sulphur, down Pete Seay Road and back. Admission fee for trail riders is $5.

World Famous Cajun Extravaganza/Gumbo Cook-Off - Saturday, February 13, 8:00 am - 2:00 pm.

You will not want to miss this taste-from-every-pot event or the hot Southern and Cajun music that comes along with it. Admission is $5 and children 5 and under are admitted free. Lake Charles Civic Center

Krewe of Omega Parade - Saturday, February 13, 2:00 pm

Downtown Lake Charles

Zydeco Dance - Saturday, February 13, 3-5:00 pm.

Live bands playing Mambo and Zydeco. Lake Charles Civic Center

Krewe of Barkus Parade - Saturday, February 13, 3:00 pm.

Fantastically disguised canines parade in full Mardi Gras attire, all vying for the title of "Mystical Dog." Entry fee applies. Lake Charles Civic Center

Krewe of Cosmos Presentation - Saturday, February 13, 6:30 p.m.

Sulphur High School Auditorium

Krewe of Illusions - Saturday, February 13, 7:30 pm.

Celebrate Mardi Gras with the 21st annual presentation of the Krewe of Illusions. Tickets are $30 orchestra, formal attire required. $18 balcony reserved seating and $15 standard balcony seating, casual attire. Lake Charles Civic Center

Taste de la Louisiane - Sunday, February 14, 11:00 am - 2:00 pm.

Pots and pots of all-you-can-eat traditional Louisiana cuisine for a $5 admission fee. Lake Charles Civic Center

Children's Day - Sunday February 14, 12 noon - 3:00 pm.

Old-time Louisiana culture, arts and crafts, Mardi Gras music and magic. Lake Charles Civic Center

Children's Parade - Sunday February 14, 3:00 pm.

Downtown Lake Charles

A purple, green and gold parade for the young and young at heart.

Royal Gala - Monday, February 15, 7:00 pm.

The Cinderella moment of the season features the 2010 courts of more than 50 krewes with kings, queens, royal dukes and duchesses, captains, courtesans and jester, followed by a night of music and dancing. Tickets are $4 in advance, or $5 at the door. Children 5 and under are admitted for free. Lake Charles Civic Center

FAT TUESDAY

LCkrewFlt.jpgKrewe of Charlie Sioux Parade Block Party - Tuesday, February 16, Time TBA

Downtown Lake Charles, Corner of Broad and Ryan

Red Hat Parade - Tuesday, February 16, 1:00 pm.

Downtown Lake Charles

Krewe of Krewes' Parade - Tuesday, February 16, 5:30 pm.

Downtown-Midtown Lake Charles

Hundreds of elaborate krewe floats, costumes, beads.

The city is also known for its tasty cuisine, historic homes districts, the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail, and zydeco and blues music. Because of earlier isolation, politics, and shifting boundaries, Lake Charles evolved on its own particular course with a still developing image. Much evidence of its history is found in the architecture that has survived the aforementioned natural disasters and the march of time. Add to that the proverbial melting pot of its population, and the sense of its history is found in many a name, road, district or handed down recipe. Whether people come to gamble, to sightsee, to eat or to dance the night away, the city offers the right setting for all who come to visit during Mardi Gras or for any other of the record number of festivals.

LCMGmus1.jpgAside from the Mardi Gras-themed music mentioned earlier, hundreds of notable musicians were either born in the area or found their muse in the clubs, music halls, or front porches in and around the parish. San Francisco Bay area zydeco maven, Queen Ida; Katie Webster, the "Swamp Boogie Queen"; Nellie Lutcher, R&B vocalist and pianist; and singer-songwriter, Lucinda Williams are some among many who grew up along the lake. Williams wrote and recorded the song "Lake Charles" about a boyfriend of hers actually born in nearby Texas, but who always professed that he was from Lake Charles. Accordion legend, Clifton Chenier, born in Opelousas, cut his teeth in the Lake Charles clubs developing the R&B and blues style that would beget zydeco. His successor, the late BooZoo Chavis, born in Church Point, would become known as the Lake Charles Atomic Bomb.

In Calcasieu Parish, zydeco and rhythm and blues are crowd pleasers at any number of festivals and clubs. If you're not bopping around to all the music that is the backdrop of Mardi Gras, find the clubs that will top off your evening's musical quota.

If you're a gamer and a gambler and you like the resort nightlife, L'Auberge du Lac Casino is the place to stay or go to for an elegant and upscale experience. With a golf course, a nightclub, a spa, boutiques galore and restaurants all on the premises, it's a self-contained entertainment area! Worth a visit even if a casino isn't your cup of tea.

LCtietje.jpgFor the food that makes Louisiana famous, drop in on a few of the best. For a fix on that crawfish pistolette, etoufee, or a seafood platter, check out Steamboat Bill's on the lake. The third generation of a local family of restaurateurs can be found serving arguably the best gumbo in town, at Pat's of Henderson. Chastain's Food and Spirits shucks and serves from the well-known oyster bar although some champion the Dutch steak and beef brisket po-boy sandwiches that are also on the menu. For a different take on the local seafood fare, Mazen's Mediterranean Foods, accents a continental menu with lamb, kibbie, hummus, tahini, and tabouli. A sister seafood restaurant has recently opened, too. If for some reason, you don't get enough king cake at any given event, stop by Delicious Donuts and Bakery, where you can also order one to be sent home to greet you when you get back!

In nearby Jennings you will find an eclectic art gallery called the Zigler Museum, housed in a colonial-style building. This gallery contains a fine arts collection by European and American artists and includes over 200 works of art, wood and bronze sculptures, and a collection of American art glass. Also on display are southwestern Louisiana wildlife dioramas.

Another interesting side trip to take also located in nearby Jennings is the Tietje Crawfish Farm. The shellfish synonymous with the state are raised here alternating with rice in the muddy paddies of this farm. Managing both an agricultural and husbandry business, the Tietje family has a system of cultivating and processing "mudbugs" that has come about through research, trial and error, and hard work, but which ultimately delivers the best crawfish and the rice to go with it, when taste-tested at the table. If you're lucky, a local Cajun band will serenade you while you dine on the premises. Call ahead to make arrangements for this unique experience.

Did I gush? I sure did! And I can't wait to get back there again to get some more! Yes, laissez le bon temps roulet!           

LCTietjecaj.jpgHe had a reason to get back to Lake Charles

He used to talk about it

He'd just go on and on

He always said Louisiana

Was where he felt at home...

Lake Charles by Lucinda Williams (from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road) 1998  

For information on Mardi Gras in Lake Charles, or to get a king cake to go, click here:
www.VisitLakeCharles.org

or call 800-456-SWLA


Joel Okida is a struggling artist, struggling writer, and struggling musician. It occurs to him that life is all about the struggle. Fortunately, he did not take up acting. However, he's not half-bad as a zydeco dancer and the ability to make a mean gumbo and lovely walnut tortes has gotten him by.