Iowa Chicken Run: a rural Mardi Gras tradition

On his head is a cowboy hat, between his lips is a whistle and in his hands is a stunned, slow-blinking chicken.

The man, Rodney Victorian, leads an impromptu lineup of tractors, wagons, horses and ATVs through Iowa. Not the state, but a weathered town of 3,000 residents in southwest Louisiana. When he toots the whistle and waves a red flag, the procession stops, crepe-paper float riders dismount, and children crowd around their fowl-toting captain.

A trio of zydeco musicians – one with a metal washboard – performs as all ages whoop and shuffle-dance to the beat. That includes Rodney, with the bird, holding it high for all to see before releasing his grip.

“Catch that chicken – we need it for gumbo,” he commands.

The frenetic Rhode Island Red flaps and scurries as kids squeal and chase it down. The spectacle ends, temporarily, when the chicken is caught and safely returned to its keeper, whose resounding whistle is a signal for the caravan to resume. How long that takes depends on the agility of the chasers, and the chicken.

The catch-and-release program repeats itself around one dozen times as the parade, under police escort, inches along and near U.S. 90, skirting onto rural roads and through Iowa’s sparse downtown. Only 1.6 miles separate the route’s start and end, Knights of Columbus Hall to a small shopping mall, but the rustic pageantry lasts a couple of hours.

Besides exhausting a cadre of caged chickens (except one, AWOL after bolting through a ravine and into a thicket), Rodney collects ingredients for gumbo during stops, just as his grandfather did 40 years ago. That might mean okra or onions from farmers, a sack of rice from Market Basket grocery and boudin (a ground mix of meats, rice, seasonings) from Rabideaux’s Sausage Kitchen.

What Willie Bushnell began in 1978, a celebration of rural Cajun culture, continues as the annual Iowa Chicken Run. The Fat Tuesday tradition includes your fill of zydeco music and gumbo – yes, chicken gumbo, but these gals are spared. Huge pots of the roux-based, soup-stew gumbo start simmering before the 10 a.m. parade begins.

“You can’t get more real than this,” says Emory Safford, to explain why he and wife Fran chose to celebrate Mardi Gras in such a remote location. (He is a Wisconsin native and 1952 grad of Goodrich High School, Fond du Lac. )

We are four times closer to the Texas state line than to New Orleans, which is 200 miles east and queen of raucous Mardi Gras carousing. Iowa Chicken Run action, as a contrast, is G-rated: Don’t expect to see flashes of bare breasts in exchange for beads, or a cavalcade of sequined gowns with feathery headdresses.

This is not New Orleans, and neither is Lake Charles, population 72,000, about 15 miles west of Iowa and proud of family-friendly festivities during Mardi Gras season. In a parade especially for children are at least 100 floats whose riders toss treats. Costumed dogs get their own parade.

A Cajun gumbo cookoff, plus music, costs $5 (free for kids). The Royal Gala, an indoor procession of royalty from 60 lavishly dressed krewes (parade/event sponsors), is a $7 ticket (free for children).

Open all year is the six-room Mardi Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu and its collection of historic, lavish and unusual costumes. Admission is $5 ($3 for children, senior citizens).

The next Iowa Chicken Run is Feb. 13, 2018. Pay no more than $10 to ride a parade float, eat gumbo and a day of zydeco. For more about southwest Louisiana, check out visitlakecharles.org, 337-436-9588.

Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, became a legal holiday in Louisiana in 1875. It precedes the arrival of Ash Wednesday and marks the end of Carnival season, which begins on Epiphany (Jan. 6). The world’s biggest Carnival celebration is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

New Orleans sells at least 500,000 “king cakes” during Carnival. Similar to a frosted coffeecake, king cake is sprinkled with sugars dyed yellow, purple and green (Mardi Gras colors). Inside is a miniature baby made of plastic; consider it a sign of good luck if your slice contains the figurine.

England and Canada are among countries that refer to Fat Tuesday as Pancake Day, a nod to the long-ago habit of using up sugar, flour and eggs before the arrival of Lenten season, when such indulgences were ill advised.

In Wisconsin, Fat Tuesday is known as Paczki Day in Polish communities, a time to savor frosted or sugar-coated doughnuts with a custard, lemon or fruit filling.

National Bakery, open since 1925, sells paczki all year, but customer lines extend out the door on Fat Tuesday, when about 36,000 are sold in one day. The bakery has three locations: Milwaukee, Brookfield and Greendale. nationalbakery.com, 414-672-1620