MAMOU, La. — The drinking started at 7 a.m., an hour when most Americans are brewing coffee, not quaffing brew. The dancing began at 9 a.m., a sweaty fais do-do of two-steps and waltzes led by Don Thibodeaux and his band, Cajun Fever.
Then the governor and a priest showed up.
Standing outside Fred's Lounge, the site of this bacchanal, Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster proclaimed Nov. 16 "Fred's Day" and unveiled a historical marker on the saloon's brick facade. He didn't waste his breath on fancy words.
"People don't like a whole bunch of bull," Foster said. He swapped kisses with Miss Mamou and posed for pictures on a giant saddle-clad wooden crawfish.
When it was the priest's turn, Father Timothy Richard (that's ree-SHARD) stepped forward, revealing a pair of sockless feet in Birkenstock sandals under his clerical coat and collar. As the band rollicked and the revelers slammed shots of warm cinnamon schnapps (known as "Hot Damn"), the pastor of St. Ann's Catholic Church offered his blessing to the high altar of bon temps.
The merriment at Fred's Lounge is a Saturday morning tradition in Cajun country, broadcast live by WVPI-AM across the south Louisiana prairie. Every week, a raucous crowd jams the dim, squat tavern, wriggling shoulder-to-shoulder around the roped-off square that serves as a stage for the fiddlers and accordionists.
But governors and priests come only on special occasions, this recent morning being Fred's 50th anniversary. More than a celebration, it was a consecration, a day of homage to Fred's role in perpetuating and preserving the region's joyous French folkways. Where else would a juke joint be honored as a cultural beacon? "Only in Mamou," said Tante Sue Vasseur, widow of the tavern's namesake, Alfred (Fred) Tate, who died in 1992.
Here in the Acadiana heartland, about halfway between Houston and New Orleans, Cajun is not a culinary trend. It's not about blackened redfish or cayenne martinis. Cajun is rough-hewn, down-home, old-country--a way of life forged by years of isolation on a rugged, although bountiful, land.
An authentic seven-course Cajun meal, it's said, is a pound of boudin (a piquant sausage of liver and rice) and a six-pack of beer.
And that's just for breakfast.
Fifty years ago, when Fred Tate bought this lounge on his 29th birthday, Cajun was hardly an enchanting term. A bastardization of Acadian, which referred to the French settlers of Nova Scotia, Cajun conjured all the stereotypes of a poor, agrarian people. In Louisiana, for many years, they were shunned for speaking their own Gallic tongue.
Fred's was a refuge, a place for music and drinks after a hard week in the rice fields or crawfish ponds. In 1962, Tate teamed with Revon Reed, a local radio broadcaster, launching a live Saturday morning show from the lounge. Mamou was dubbed the "Cajun Music Capital of the World" and the jam sessions became barn-burning hoedowns.
"If you like to party, it don't matter the time of the day, honey," explained Sharon Berzas, 44, one of Tate's three grown children.
Or as George Ortega, 76, a retired building contractor, said as he tapped his pointy cowboy boots to the infectious beat: "I get all liquored up in the morning because I like to sleep at night."
As interest in Cajun music and cooking blossomed in the '80s, Fred's became the stuff of legend, a pocket of authenticity in an age of freeways and superstores. Tourists, musicians, bikers and film crews began flocking to Mamou, a town of about 4,000 with one blistered old boarding house, the Hotel Cazan, whose spartan $20 rooms might just as easily be in North Africa as south Louisiana.
On this rarefied Saturday, 29-year-old Chris Powell of nearby Ville Platte was aiming his camcorder, "recording history in the making." Margaret Judice, 26, who had traveled from the governor's hometown of Franklin, was waltzing in the street, atop empty beer cans, with an elderly man in a Day-Glo hunting cap. L.J. Aucoin, a 65-year-old New Orleans pilot, had hitchhiked to Fred's after flying solo to a nearby landing strip in his single-prop Cessna.
"I hope one of the girls I've been dancing with will give me a ride back to the airport," he said, mopping his brow.
When the morning's emcee, Raymond LeJeune, stepped outside and asked everyone gathered on Sixth Street to bow their heads "in silent remembrance of Fred Tate," a hush fell over downtown Mamou. But inside Fred's Lounge, the house that Tate built, Cajun Fever raged on.