Baton Rouge’s Local Food Evolution
It’s no secret. Louisiana dishes up some of the tastiest food on the planet. I write about it all the time. I talk about it all the time. Everywhere I go in the world, I shout it out- to anyone who’ll listen- I love Thai food! I love Italian food! But my favorite? My favorite food in the whole wide world? It’s the cuisine from my hometown, Baton Rouge, Louisiana! Grits and grillades, chicken and andouille gumbo, shrimp and corn soup, boudin balls, fried shrimp and oyster poboys, jambalaya, red beans and rice, crawfish etouffee…. How can anywhere else compete??
Baton Rouge, a food mecca?
When I received the email from Christy of Visit Baton Rouge (BR) inviting me to join five other bloggers for Fete Rouge FAM, a culinary adventure-whirlwind of a weekend, I was thrilled. It was an opportunity to see my home-town through fresh “outsider” eyes and a food-focused lens. There was no moral question or ethical debate around my strong desire to promote a city that I’m so proud of and vehemently believe in. (I say this partly in jest, as a travel blogging trend of late is to discuss the moral/ethical implications of visiting and promoting places like Dubai and North Korea).
In fact, Baton Rouge made some major waves at TBEX in Toronto last May (where I met the lovely Visit BR folks) as the main sponsor of the event. Their conspicuous displays of said generous sponsorship (everyone’s favorite being the free beignets and community coffee they provided in the morning) set tongues wagging about the possibilities of Baton Rouge hosting the next North American TBEX. It’s sort of a foreshadowing effect. The prospect of drawing in thousands of travel bloggers from all over the world to my Baton Rouge had me reeling! How amazing would that be?
A slow and steady food evolution
After moving away ten years ago, I’ve watched Baton Rouge’s culinary scene slowly change, grow, and mature from afar…. like a proud daughter witnessing the enlightenment of a newly tech-savvy or environmentally conscious parent. I remember reading Rien Fertel’s article in Garden and Gun many months ago with mixed emotions. Being a Baton Rouge native, I get a little tired of hearing our New Orleans neighbors snicker under their breath about our inferiority to their great culture, food, and music scenes. Now don’t get me wrong. New Orleans is one of my favorite places on Earth. It’s truly unique and amazing. But not for one second do I buy that malarkey about us being the ugly step sister. No sir. Baton Rouge has come in to its own, and in many ways, the city has many things on offer that other cities (including NOLA!) lack. The first thing that comes to mind is game day at LSU Tiger Stadium. That’s another topic, but if you’ve never been to an SEC college football game, Death Valley is the best place to experience it. “It is the cathedral of college football, and worship happens here.”
Before I digress much further, I want to focus on the subtle yet significant advances BR has achieved in the creative cuisine and farm to table movements. Once I got past the slight condescending tone of Fertel’s article, I relished in his pleasant surprise. He singled out new kids on the block that were making culinary waves, like Restaurant IPO, Magpie Cafe and Beausoleil, which I made a point of trying (and loved!). He also highlighted how the established, popular Juban’s Restaurant (Chef Jaime Hernandez) made little changes yielding big impacts, such as toasting and grinding their own herbs and buying meat and greens from local farmers.
Red Stick Farmer’s Market
Beausolei’s chef Nathan Gresham decided to hunker down in Baton Rouge, abandoning his original designs on New Orleans, after witnessing the growth of the thriving Red Stick Farmers Market and increasingly sophisticated and curious palates of Baton Rouge patrons. Touring that very farmers market for the first time during our culinary tour, we witnessed the local food and farm movement that I had been reading and hearing so much about.
I ran in to a family friend who had a booth inside (there are both indoor and outdoor vendor stalls). “This is as close to Europe as you can get,” she whispered. We were lucky with the weather that day (a non-humid, not hot, not rainy day in August is hard to come by here!), but I caught a glimpse of an Italian (or maybe more appropriately -French) market.
I bought grits, which isn’t that big of a deal, I guess. They’re on almost every menu in Nashville (where I live). But these were ground brown rice grits. And I totally fell in love with the (brother?) farmers. “What kind of lens is that?” The one decked out in a plaid button-down asked me. Then they went on to compare digital and print photography and discuss tips on ways to compose artistic shots, in a perfectly delightful cajun accent, I might add. I love ironic situations. I could have stayed and talked with them for hours about their farm. Guess what I did with those grits? I brought them up to Nashville and made grits and grillades for the first time- at my inaugural supper club (my turn to host) with new friends. They were a major hit. I told the story about the special brown rice grits and the sweet farmers from BR.
Fancy some Red Neck Seasoning? I love the fun, self-deprecating sense of humor of BR folks.
We also visited Tin Roof Brewing Company, another mention in Fertel’s article. Slow Food Baton Rouge, a non-profit dedicated to the development and promotion of just, secure and sustainable local food systems, includes Tin Roof in their list of food artisan establishments.
Also on that list, I just excitingly realized, is Heirloom Cuisine, who catered my brother’s rehearsal dinner, as well as mine four years ago (at the same house in Baton Rouge)! OK, so maybe that wasn’t as exciting for you as it was for me…. Back to Tin Roof. It was my first time visiting the brewery, and I loved tasting all of their local beers. My favorites were the watermelon wheat and IPA (as always). What a neat place to visit, too, if you are ever in Baton Rouge.
We headed over to Tin Roof after our amazing visit to one of my favorite places in the world, Tony’s Seafood Market (read about that phenomenal back-stage tour here). Before that, we started our day off right at the infamous LSU institution Louie’s Cafe.
The cook will chat your ear off while serving up some of the best breakfast you’re likely to ever encounter. Their omelets are famous, but for some reason, I don’t think I’d ever had one. I always went for the hash browns. This time, I broke tradition and tried the Mitchell (mushroom, sausage, hash browns, colby cheese). I think it was the best omelet I’ve ever had!
The day culminated with Chef John Folse’s ingenious “typical” Louisiana fare at White Oak Plantation. The event, aptly named Chillin and Grillin, provided both the opportunity to meet the renowned chef and taste his (and others’) unworldly creations.
I’ll be sharing more details about this and the weekend’s other main culinary events, including Fete Baton Rouge and an amazing pop-up brunch at Doe’s Eat Place. Stay tuned!
Disclosure: I was a guest of Visit Baton Rouge, but all opinions are my own, as always.