by Carla Waldemar
“Democrat or demagogue?” Welcome to a vivid history lesson in Baton Rouge, where politics-as-usual are most unusual. The exhibit in the Old State Capitol posed the question regarding its most famous (or notorious) occupant, Gov. Huey Long, later senator (wielding both offices simultaneously, quipped our guide about the most loved/reviled man in Louisiana history).
Nicknamed Kingfish, he ruled as king of Louisiana while fishing for payola from favors granted. While New Orleans, a hundred miles away, served as playground for high society, Baton Rouge, the capital, was more akin to Baghdad, with Huey as its Saddam Hussein.
In fact, there’s a Saddam-like statue smack in front of the new State Capitol, which he strong-armed legislative courtiers into building in 1932—the first thing in town to catch a visitor’s eye. Well, who could miss it? Because Huey wanted it to be the tallest capitol in the country, the Arte Moderne erection soars 34 stories high.
Gasp at the WPA-powered murals within, then ascend to the observatory to scan the landscape: riverboats plying the Mississippi; the rigs of Standard Oil, whose arrival in 1909 ensured the town’s prosperity; and everywhere the green parks and promenades that define the city. Finally, wander the corridor where the demigod/demagogue was assassinated in 1935.
Next, follow that garden promenade to the Old State Capitol, where first he reigned, which looks like it belonged to Ivanhoe, not Huey. (As Mark Twain famously sneered, “the castle on the river”). Here’s where that original question is put. Huey was a populist to some, paving roads for sharecroppers, who’d previously slogged through mud, providing free education to the state’s poor, extending voting rights–but the price he charged was rampant corruption. “One of the most dangerous men in American,” FDR declared.
Head over to the splendid new Museum of Louisiana History, where newsreels of his speeches unfold right beside films of another of Louisiana’s heroes, Louis Armstrong. The museum unfolds the state’s colorful history since first Spain, then France, sought to control that commercial interstate of the era, the mighty Mississippi. Then, on to the Louisiana Purchase: at four cents an acre, perhaps the biggest real-estate bonanza of all time. Next, the War of 1812, where Choctaws, Creoles and free men of color joined the fight against the British for control of the river. On to the days of sugarcane and cotton plantations, the Civil War, and a wrenching depiction of slavery, which culminated, decades later, in a victorious bus boycott by the city’s Blacks that paved the way for Montgomery. The second floor is devoted to the state’s lusty cultural gumbo, from Mardi Gras to music, sports to shrimp boats, Cajun to Creole.
Just outside town, the Rural Outdoor Museum invites folks to explore repositioned old-time buildings, including a grist mill, church and graveyard, school house, sick house and slaves’ quarters. And it’s here that the city’s premier present-day treasure, Chef John Folse, cooked up his old-fashioned cochon de lait—a slow-roasted suckling pug.
Never mind that he’s cooked for five presidents and the pope, he’s still a simple country boy at heart, born in a cabin on the bayou. And he’s still in love with the land: “Beyond just the normal South, this is Louisiana, where our life revolves around food. So it’s a great place to live and a fabulous place to cook,” blessed, he says, with a food heritage that blends contributions from Native Americans, French, Spanish, African slaves, the English who filtered south after the Revolution, the Acadians kicked out of Canada, and who-all else.
Back in town, at the Hilton Hotel’s Kingfish restaurant, Michael Loupe is another chef who was brought up eating “whatever daddy caught out in the countryside—rabbit, crawfish, deer.” Michael’s own stand-out appetizer—the one he jokingly dubs the “Louisiana diet plate”—bends under the weight of a pair of softshell crabs with roast pineapple and andouille beurre blanc; shrimp large enough to serve as guard dogs; and a tasty tenderloin atop fried eggplant. Warning: He also makes some of the best bananas foster ever known to cross one’s lips.
They also know how to do it up right (or not) at Boudreaux & Thibodeaux, an anchor of Third Street’s Entertainment District. (Think smoked suckling pig stuffed with foie gras dirty rice.)
Strolling the next day in search of seafood, I asked a local in line at a café what to order. She whispered, “Go across the street.” OK.
She was right. Seafood Market—a counter-service dive—didn’t disappoint. Asking the order gal to help me choose between a shrimp po’ boy and shrimp salad, she offered, “Salad. It’s healthier.” Well, lady, that’s relative, considering the mountain of seafood, topped with cheese and creamy dressing. But mighty tasty.
So was the Creole tomato and mozzarella salad at Circa 1857, starring viands from the weekly Farmers Market, where I’d grazed on stone-ground grits, blueberry wine, and shrimp and tasso sausage soup, while a vendor called out, “Eggs! The girls are laying!” and a fiddler tapped his foot. The quirky 1857 adjoins a warren of rustic antiques. If you’re in the market for an old-time barber’s chair or handbag fashioned from an armadillo, you’ve come to the right place.
To spy on where some of those treasures originated, meander down a street called Spanishtown, lined with cozy shotgun houses and home of one of the premier Mardi Gras parades in the South. Then stroll along the levee’s promenade, watching the barges trundle by, close to the city’s avant art museum and the science museum housed in the former railway station beside the casino. In other words, something for everybody.
Longing to visit Huey’s city? Contact www.visitbatonrouge.com.