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.