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A tasty gumbo of cultures
A Baton Rouge weekend encourages sampling

Story and photos
by Carolyn Thornton

Published: Jul/Aug 2000

Louisiana’s Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge boasts a brilliant stained-glass ceiling seen from a spiral stairway.
A good Louisiana gumbo stew contains zesty vegetables, a heap of seafood and spices. Similarly, Baton Rouge serves as a gumbo-style cultural melting pot. Located in the middle of Plantation Country, visitors to Baton Rouge also can easily explore Cajun lands. Whether staying within the city or exploring its surroundings, weekenders will be rewarded with culinary treats, cultural attractions, architecture and customs reflecting Louisiana’s past.

The city takes its name from the French term for red stick, a cypress pole stained with the blood of animals, which marked the dividing line between the Bayou Goula and Houmas Indians’ hunting grounds. The French established a military outpost here in the early 1700s. They were followed by planters who amassed great wealth by planting sugarcane along the Mississippi River and its bayou tributaries.

The West Baton Rouge Museum (across the Mississippi River at Port Allen) details sugarcane history and production. Eleven miles upriver, the 1850s Orange Grove Plantation Store stands as a rare reminder of a plantation’s social center. Periodic presentations demonstrate creole, Cajun and open-hearth cooking.

Plentiful plantations

Baton Rouge lies in the heart of Plantation Country. Within 30 minutes, you can visit a cluster of antebellum mansions and gardens north at St. Francisville or travel south along the River Road to New Orleans. Historic homes flank both banks of the Mississippi.

In Baton Rouge, Magnolia Mound stands as one of the oldest wooden structures in the state (built circa 1791). Mount Hope (1817), built by a German planter, can also be toured or booked for bed and breakfast.

An aspect of plantation life that has been destroyed on most of the outlying plantations can be explored at Louisiana State University’s (LSU) Rural Life Museum. Buildings–slave cabins, schoolhouse, overseer’s home, general store – which once surrounded each great house, have been collected here. A few reproductions illustrate typical architecture that would otherwise have been lost. For example, the Cajun cottage, with a pirogue boat chained to the side, has a front porch stairway to the attic, where boys slept once they reached 14. The girls remained protected in the main rooms of the house below.

Cajun flavors

Speaking of Cajun culture, Baton Rouge lies on the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp, the springboard into Cajun Country. During the mid-1800s, Acadian exiles from Nova Scotia made their way down the Atlantic Coast seeking a new home. They were not welcomed until they reached Louisiana where they mixed with French settlers living along the rivers and bayous. Swamp tours offered by several companies are available. Or follow the boardwalks and trails through a cypress-tupelo swamp and beech-magnolia hardwood forest at Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center.

As the sun sets, Acadian accents, customs and cuisine take center stage at Mulate’s Cajun Restaurant. Dark Cajun-style beer is served with peppery gumbos and jambalayas of crawfish and shrimp. While a Cajun band with fiddler, washboard, bass, guitar and accordion plays, the entire family dances the chank-a-chank, half waltz, half Texas Two Step. It’s a Tuesday–Saturday ritual that lasts until closing.

To sample the “red stick rhythm” as local writer V. Todd Miller called the local jazz, sit in at M’s Fine & Mellow Cafe Friday and Saturday evenings (folk and rock sounds heard Wednesday and Thursday), or Tabby’s Blues Box for Cajun zydeco on Monday nights. Both hot spots are located downtown.

The Varsity, near LSU, features live bands playing pop favorites. LSU is the state’s flagship university and has a number of museums, as well as American Indian mounds that are 1,600 years old. Baton Rouge is also home to Southern University, the largest historically African American university in the country.

Peppery politics

One cannot visit Baton Rouge and escape its political history. The castle-like Old State Capitol, built in 1849, was used by Union troops as a prison for captured Confederates. But a grease fire that got out of control later led Mark Twain to comment “dynamite should finish the work a charitable fire began.” Twain thought the Gothic Revival styling was out of place. (Reputedly, he also complained about the sweet scent of magnolias.) Inside, a spectacular stained glass ceiling lights a cast-iron spiral stairway.

At 34 stories, the New State Capitol is the tallest in the nation. Art Deco details abound from the floor-to-ceiling bronze magnolias at the windows, which are beautiful and functional. The bronzes protect the glass during hurricane season. A colorful ceiling is made of Celutic, a by-product of Louisiana’s sugar cane industry.

But the building is most notorious as the site of Gov. Huey Long’s assassination in the back, ground-floor corridor. Long’s grave, marked by a bronze statue, lies in the front gardens.

Long’s flamboyance adds a dose of saucy Louisiana politics to Baton Rouge. Last year, a restored Old Governor’s Mansion reopened, and you’ll hear a number of Long legends there. Green silk pajamas, draped across the master bed, recall the occasion when Long, dressed in green pajamas, a red silk bathrobe and blue slippers, met with a German admiral who was in full dress uniform. One reporter wrote that Long emerged “looking like an explosion in a paint factory.”

Another legend says Long slapped a $20 bill on an architect’s desk and said, “Build me something like that.” He wanted a replica of the White House (on the back of the bill) so that he would be familiar with the layout when he became president. Mansion tours are offered Tuesday–Saturday.

A great supporter of LSU’s Fighting Tigers football team, Long once delayed the arrival of the Ringling Bros. Circus because it would have diminished the size of the football crowd. Although advance tickets had been sold, circus promoters postponed the performance when Long ferreted out an obscure ordinance requiring that every out-of-state animal be dipped for ticks.

A little Lagniappe

Lagniappe, which means a little something extra, describes other city attractions, including two sternwheeler gaming casinos, gardens and arboretums and The Enchanted Mansion Doll Museum. The Louisiana Arts & Science Center and Riverside Museum, next to the USS KIDD and Nautical Center, contains an art gallery, a hands-on children’s art center, a full-size steam locomotive, a room-size N-gauge model railroad layout, and a mummy in a permanent Egyptian exhibit. Like Baton Rouge itself, it’s one rich gumbo, waiting to be tasted.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.


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