I could hear the warble of Cajun French three blocks away—the accompanying accordion pulsing bright and tinny—as I weaved my way between fresh-faced boys with Brylcreem-slicked coifs and middle-aged women drinking Michelob Ultra on horseback.
No one seemed to be concerned about whether or not drinking and riding is a punishable offense.
It was the Saturday before Mardi Gras and celebrations leading up to the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday Run) were well underway by 10:30 a.m. in Mamou, Louisiana. A threadbare farming town (population: 3,500) positioned down winding back roads and flooded soybean fields about an hour outside of Lafayette, the “Cajun Music Capital of the World,” as it’s known, would hold little interest for visitors if not for a tiny, red brick building on the town’s Main Street.
Fred’s Lounge—a beer joint, makeshift dance hall and Cajun music hotbed—has been the undisputed heartbeat of “Big Mamou” since opening in 1946, drawing curious eyes and ears from around the world looking to bask in the glory of a warm Saturday on the Cajun prairie.
Acadiana, or Cajun Country, is made up of a small pocket of parishes in Southern Louisiana that are home to a uniquely Francophone population—descendants of those exiled Acadians who made their way down to the swamps from Canada’s Maritime Provinces during the French and Indian War. Long isolated, both geographically and socially, the region remains one of the most distinct in the nation—fiercely loyal to generations-old traditions and community.
The tiny hamlets and villages that make up Cajun Country struggled after World War II. The boys returning home from war were more interested in the bright lights of nearby New Orleans than the dusty fields of their hometown. In an effort to appeal to a younger demographic, one of the recently returned soldiers, Alfred “Fred” Tate, purchased an old bar on Main Street and renamed it in his own honor. The bar quickly became the embodiment of Cajun attitude: a gregarious, rowdy, and welcoming place that was an instant success.
Fred’s helped retain a heritage that was quickly slipping away, using the more festive elements of Cajun culture—uptempo, staccato two-step music, an allegiance to stuffed and fried meats and a lenient attitude towards day drinking—to not only preserve traditions, but help the community of Mamou flourish.
The Cajun identity is made up of an odd paradox of a deeply engrained, devil-may-care attitude towards authority and open-armed gentility and inclusive spirit that seems, at first glance, to be contradictory. But it’s this spirit—equal parts comfort food and buck wild—that keeps dancers and drinkers alike coming back to the area.
The allure of Fred’s—which is only open on Saturday mornings from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.—has little do with aesthetics. The floor is beer-soaked and sticky and the walls are coated in a film of dust so thick that I watched several women write their names in it. The band is sectioned off from the dance floor with only a stout nylon rope to prevent overzealous dancers from careening into the fiddle player. And the men’s restroom opens directly into the backdoor hallway, making for an uncomfortable sighting of said fiddle player relieving himself.
For upwards of 65 years, a live radio show has been broadcast each Saturday from Fred’s on KVPI (1050AM) out of nearby Ville Platte, bringing the beer-guzzling and Cajun jitterbugging of Fred’s dance floor—a gritty mix of dirt from boots and sweat from foreheads—to all of South Louisiana.
The main attraction at Fred’s isn’t the music, though: it’s a petite, snowy-haired 84-year-old spitfire who goes by Tante (“Aunt”) Sue. She’s Fred’s ex-wife (Fred himself passed away decades ago) and a living, breathing, shot-taking institution.
“Have some, cher!” said Sue as she grabbed my arm and pulled me outside in front of the bar, where crowds were milling about as pork cracklings popped and hissed in giant metal bins. Her accent is distinctly Cajun: quick, aspirated and sprinkled with French loanwords. “This is my own special Hot Damn!” She removed a small brown bottle of liquor from her fanny pack, shoved into my hands and chided me to take a sip. “Bebe, it may just flatten you out!”
Tante Sue’s Hot Damn! is DeKuyper hot cinnamon schnapps liqueur—a drink with which she has become synonymous. For the uninitiated, Hot Damn! tastes as if someone melted down hundreds of Hot Tamale candies, added grain alcohol and baked the mixture in the sun for several days. It’s simultaneously awful and addictive.
Over the course of the day, Sue brought out bottle after bottle of the stuff from her seemingly bottomless fanny pack supply, encouraging friends to drink it down, pass it around and shake off the sickeningly sweet taste with a bite of her homemade boudin—a rich rice-and-pork sausage that’s a staple of the region.
When not taking shots of Sue’s special concoction, most patrons at Fred’s downed beer after beer, leaving the empty cans on small, circular platforms positioned high above the dance floor (dancing and drinking simultaneously is largely frowned upon) like an aluminum crow’s nest.
Almost as soon as I arrived I was swept up onto the dance floor, the thumping beat of the band and electric energy of my fellow dancers an intoxicating mix. I kicked and twisted to traditional Cajun French songs, feeling my way along with the signature “hobble step” dance move. I slow danced to the band covering “He Stopped Loving Her Today”—the classic tearjerker by George Jones—and joined in as we all sang along with the chorus uproariously.
The entire morning, the dance floor resembled a Cajun two-step mosh pit with sardined couples twirling, kicking and stomping two-by-two and shoulder-to-shoulder across the floor. The far wall of the dance floor—lined with folding chairs à la high school dance—provided a place of respite for couples looking to catch their breath. Older gentlemen in Carhartt jackets, twentysomething girls in giggling clusters and middle-aged couples tapping their boots to the beat all sat side-by-side. Above their heads, a faded, handwritten sign swayed back and forth: “Please DO NOT stand on the tables, chairs, cigarette machine, booths and juke-box! – Chairs. Thank you Fred.” Everyone complied.
The Cajun identity is made up of an odd paradox of a deeply engrained, devil-may-care attitude towards authority and open-armed gentility and inclusive spirit that seems, at first glance, to be contradictory. But it’s this spirit—equal parts comfort food and buck wild—that keeps dancers and drinkers alike coming back to the area. Fred’s expectation that folks can get as rowdy as they want—as long as they respect one another and a few simple rules—embodies this philosophy wholeheartedly.
Fred’s Lounge is far more than just a colorful roadside attraction. Part museum, part living organism the bar is wholly dedicated to the preservation of Cajun culture, from year-round weekend dancing to serving as the central hub for Courir de Mardi Gras celebrations. It’s hard to imagine that these traditions would still be burning as brightly without Fred’s to serve as an anchor and hands-on education center, teaching generation after generation just what it means to be Cajun.