BATON ROUGE, LA — “Are you a Tigah fan?”
Danny Robert, the 2012 Jambalaya World Champion, has just one question for me. It’s Thursday night, 48 hours before LSU will host Florida under the lights at Tiger Stadium and Robert is cooking for BASF, the chemical plant he works at just outside of town, in the Jambalaya Jam. In our introduction my accent gives away that, while from the South, I am quite clearly not from Louisiana and, as such, the question must be asked.
This particular weekend, I am an LSU fan and have the Tigers -13 ticket to prove it. Robert accepts this as good enough and we talk briefly about the Tigers in the shadow of the Old Capitol Building as he patiently awaits when they finally announce the results of the JamJam so he can make his way back home. For me, it’s the perfect introduction to Baton Rouge, a place with a unique history all its own, where the city, government, LSU football, and food are all inescapably intertwined.
Sitting on the Mississippi River, an hour drive west of New Orleans, Baton Rouge exists almost in a different world — as does just about everything else from New Orleans. The most famous Louisiana city is a place where the party never has to end and the entertainment options are endless. Baton Rouge, meanwhile, is a working-class city surrounded by chemical plants and sugar mills, and it exists as the capital city of Louisiana exactly for the fact that it isn’t New Orleans.
Because the state’s legislators enjoyed New Orleans too much, it was written into the state constitution that the seat of government in Louisiana would be placed no fewer than 60 miles outside of New Orleans, preferably on the Mississippi River for access. Baton Rouge fit the bill. The Old State Capitol building, a Gothic-inspired castle, was constructed and became the center of downtown. It burned down aside from the brick and plaster exterior while occupied by the Union army in the Civil War, and was rebuilt after. Governor Huey Long, a man with a wildly interesting story of his own, would eventually build his own capitol building — which I had described to me as, “if someone vomited Art Deco everywhere” — out of spite because being in the old capitol reminded him of the state legislature’s attempt at impeaching him.
Even the wild political history of Baton Rouge extends to LSU football. The relationship between LSU football and the legislature in Baton Rouge dates back to the 1930s, when Long (a massive Tigers fan), managed to get Tiger Stadium built in the midst of the Great Depression by pushing it through as a housing project, the only type of building that could get public funds at the time, by putting dorm rooms inside the stadium. Today, a successful head football coach can wield significant political power in the state, something I learn firsthand as the Florida game is happening on election day in the state, and Coach Ed Orgeron’s endorsement of John Bel Edwards carries serious weight.
I stand and salute as a Tony Chachere’s branded food truck drives by. It’s Saturday morning in Baton Rouge, nine hours until the Tigers will kickoff against the Gators. Behind me, the makings of a “pastalaya” are cooking. Chicken, pork, beef, sausage, jalapeno cheddar sausage, and trinity mix all take their turns in what is, effectively, a giant wok before they’re all mixed together with farfalle noodles and given a healthy seasoning, creating one of the best tasting concoctions I’ve ever had anywhere.
Tailgating is a big deal prior to games at any big football program, but at LSU it is truly a unique experience. Every school has its own flair to the tailgate scene in the SEC, but the two that are the most highly regarded are at The Grove at Ole Miss and here in Baton Rouge. Part of the allure of The Grove is the setting, nestled between the massive live oaks in Oxford, tents stretch as far as the eye can see, with parties that rage all day and all night. At LSU, the main event is the food — although the drinks are in abundance.
Ryan King is manning the cookpot, stirring the mixture with a giant metal paddle — which would also eventually be used to serve because they forgot the big spoon. King is an LSU alum and, along with his wife Laney, is the creator of The Crawfish App, an app that tracks the price of crawfish (boiled and live) at more than 1,000 vendors across the Gulf Coast. He and some friends tailgate before each home game at their parking spot right across from Tiger Stadium, operating out of a van they purchased for $300 and gutted to transport their tents and supplies — the insurance costs more each year than the van initially cost. It’s not crawfish season yet, but the pastalaya does more than enough to soak up the libations being consumed.
Across campus, Billy Gomila, managing editor of LSU blog And The Valley Shook, is working the cookpot for a small tailgate with family and friends. It’s the Florida game, so alligator sauce piquant is on the menu. While some struggled to find gator due to the high demand before Florida came to town, Billy happily had no issues picking some up from his local grocery store. The alligator is fork-tender after cooking in the tomato-based sauce (with trinity mix, of course) and a healthy dose of Tony’s extra spicy seasoning. Ladled over rice, it all mixes together perfectly.
There are corporate tailgates, catered with delicious food as well, but the heart of the LSU game day experience is here. It’s what makes LSU tailgating all its own. They’re not just making burgers and dogs — although those can be found — they’re making dishes unique to Louisiana, because this is a place with a culture all its own, separate from “the south” at large, that they are very proud of.
The days leading up to Saturday in Baton Rouge are surprisingly quiet, at least near downtown. Down by campus, the party has begun, but for someone seeking to pace themselves for the eventual marathon that is a night game Saturday, there’s something appreciable about how low-key it is in the city. It doesn’t suddenly get overwhelmed on Friday before the game, instead going about business as usual.
As one would expect, there are great food options in Baton Rouge. You can pop into the Jolie Pearl for fresh oysters, Cecelia’s Creole Bistro for divine fried green tomatoes, or visit Elsie’s for a crawfish pie. You also, because this is Louisiana, can find plenty of places to get a drink, and even some of those are unique to the working-class culture surrounding Baton Rouge.
Three Roll Distillery is a short walk from downtown and is owned by the Alma Sugar Mill that sits just across the Mississippi River so they can make their own rum, vodka, and whiskey, exclusively using the sugar and sugar byproducts that comes from their mill — the only thing not sourced from Louisiana is the yeast. Much of the decor and furniture is repurposed old equipment from the mill, and even the mixers and syrups for cocktails are made in-house. It is the microbrewery experience for those that lean towards hard liquor over beer, where you can do a tasting of their variety of liquors or get whatever the day’s cocktail specials are.
Baton Rouge is quiet, but welcoming in the days leading up to LSU game day. It’s a stark contrast to the scene in New Orleans, where so many stay for game weekends because the party never has to stop, but given the toll taken on the body on Saturday, it’s a welcome reprieve.
We live in a time where the in-home football viewing experience has never been better. We have massive TVs with HD and 4K broadcasts that show you every possible angle. We have cable packages that offer us every game on Saturday and many of us set up multiple TVs and screens so we can take in as much football as humanly possible, all from the comfort of our couches and recliners.
For many, this is far superior to the time, money, and energy required to go to games themselves, which is totally understandable. However, there are still places that carry an experience beyond the game itself that is more than worth making a trip for, and LSU is near the top of that list.
With a stomach full of pastalaya, alligator sauce piquant, and a witch’s brew of various alcoholic beverages, I strolled into Tiger Stadium as the sun began to set. An LSU night game has always been something that I as a college football fan have wanted to attend. They’ve been playing night games here since the 1930s, longer than just about anyone else. There is a special air about them, a buzz not felt in most stadiums, even ahead of big games. On the field, a gleeful LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who is from Larose, La. and is the physical embodiment of how Louisiana is unique within the south as a whole, tells Tom Rinaldi in pregame that Tiger Stadium is where an opponent’s dreams come to die. The stadium is packed, hoping to watch Gators get cooked for four hours for the second time that day.
On this particular Saturday, the Tigers make Coach O’s pregame declaration seem prescient with a 42-28 win over the Gators, courtesy of a dominant second half in which they outscored Florida 21-7 and found a little something on defense along the way. Death Valley was rocking, as it almost always is, late into the night as the Tigers bowed up and stuffed the Gators’ last gasp effort in the closing minutes.
Afterwards, the hordes of LSU fans poured out of the stadium, many of whom made the pilgrimage up the hill to Walk-On’s for a postgame celebration. Getting home after a big night game at LSU is a task, as they divert traffic in all manner of directions. It might take you two hours to simply get to the highway a few miles away, so finding somewhere walkable to wait it out and keep the party going is usually your best option.
By Sunday morning, Baton Rouge has returned to its natural state. Most folks are still sleeping off the party from the night before as I take a peaceful stroll down by the Mississippi to try and shake the cobwebs off myself before heading to the airport. There, even the Florida fans appear to be in a pretty good mood despite the results. LSU fans are pretty widely regarded as being among the most hospitable in the country, and will warmly stuff rival fans with food and beverages before rooting on their Tigers to kill your dreams.
A trip to an LSU game is a spectacular experience, and by the end of it, if you come as a neutral party, you’ll likely finding yourself nodding yes when a jambalaya champion asks, “Are you a Tigah fan?”
Uproxx was hosted by Visit Baton Rouge for part of the reporting on this piece. However, Visit Baton Rouge did not review or approve this story in any way. You can find out more about our policy on press trips/hostings here.