The sun isn’t up yet. The ditches are full from the recent rain, and you can see the breath from the men piled in the back of the pickup truck. Their face paint is hardly dry, yet they sing and jest, fringed costumes slapping around them as they make their way into town. Their destination? The Saddle Tramp Riders Club. Why? Because today they are to travel from house to house, begging and seeking charitable donations for a communal gumbo, drunkenly chasing down the offered chickens.
Not the picture of Mardi Gras you expected? Much different from the New Orleans scene, this rural Cajun tradition has been in practice for over 260 years. And little has changed since the first Acadians brought the custom with them when they settled Louisiana in the 1750’s, including the attire. Pointed capuchons, masques, and layers of fringe allude to satirical dress medieval Europeans, and ancient Romans before them, wore during feasts to mock nobility and parody the rich while veiling their identity. So where would one find such an ensemble if one wished to partake in such debauchery? Le Vieux Moulin in Church Point is your answer.
Once an old grain mill, Mrs. Jean and Mr. Tom Norman have transformed le vieux moulin (the old mill) into an outward expression of their lives. Mr. Tom’s oil and acrylic paintings overlay the 113-year-old cypress ship-lapped walls. Collages made from Mardi Gras beads, autographed Zydeco and Swamp Pop band photos (including Mr. Tom’s own bands), hand-painted guitars, accordions transformed into clocks, and even a Wall of Honor bedeck the dusty walls. Among the honors hang plaques ranging from Citizen of the Year, King and Queen of the Buggy Festival, and even a First Place Talent Show certificate Mrs. Jean won aboard a Carnival Cruise where she proudly sang the National Anthem in Cajun French. Just ask her, and she will gladly give you an encore. For almost 20 years the Normans have shared their love of Mardi Gras and Cajun music from the front porch of Le Vieux Moulin. And tucked in the corner of the shop, surrounded by mounds of fabrics, is where Mrs. Jean hand sews each and every costume that she displays and sells in the store. Creating between 40-60 costumes a year and spending 24-36 sewing hours on every one, each costume is a labor of love. “I’d give them away if I could, but I have to eat,” she says to me with a grin. Generosity and southern hospitality are just a way of life for the Norman’s.
If you are ready to experience a more authentic Louisiana Mardi Gras and want to try your hand at grappling for chickens, pay Mr. Tom and Mrs. Jean a visit by exiting Interstate 10 at Rayne and taking LA-35 north for 12 miles to 402 W. Canal Street. Or give them a call (337)684-1200, just be prepared to be greeted in French.