Remembering the Battle of Baton Rouge

Readying the cannon for fire.

Readying the cannon for fire.

It’s hard to believe, but on August 5, 1862, a full-blown battle between Union and Confederate soldiers took place smack dab in the middle of Baton Rouge.

Today, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana held a ceremony in historic Magnolia Cemetery commemorating that day 151 years ago and the Battle of Baton Rouge. At the time, Baton Rouge was under Union occupation. Confederate General John C. Breckenridge, a former Vice President of the United States, had received orders to re-take the city and had amassed 4,000 men on the Comite River.

A few hours before dawn, with the ironclad C.S.S. Arkansas waiting upriver, Breckenridge struck along North Street through what is now known as Mid-City. The fighting raged along a line from near North Street, down North 19th Street to Government Street, with Magnolia Cemetery at the very heart of the struggle.

Reenactor John White in a Confederate Captain's uniform.

Reenactor John White in a Confederate Captain’s uniform.

The Confederates initially had success, until, about 7:30 a.m., when Confederate Colonel Henry Watkins Allen received a serious wound and the troops retreated in disarray. Later, during several uncoordinated Confederate attacks, the commanding general of the Union forces, Thomas Williams, was shot and killed.

Meanwhile, the C.S.S. Arkansas suffered engine failure, and, rather than face capture, she was blown up by her crew. The Union gunboat U.S.S. Essex, however, sat unharmed in the Mississippi River, and shelled Confederate troops at will.

After a few hours of fighting, close to 200 men were killed and another 650 were wounded or missing. Each side appeared traumatized. With many of his own leaders dead or wounded and with no help from the Arkansas, Breckenridge withdrew back toward the Comite River. The Battle of Baton Rouge was over.

Within two weeks, Union forces destroyed many downtown buildings and evacuated to New Orleans. In late August, Confederates re-occupied Baton Rouge, but only for a short while, until they moved to the more strategic Port Hudson position a dozen miles upriver. Union forces returned that December and remained through the end of the war.

As far as food goes, during the war, Union soldiers, on the whole, ate better than the Confederates because the federal government had a well-established commissary system. Typical rations included staples such as salt pork, dried fruit and vegetables, coffee, salt, and the infamous hard tack, a three-inch square of rock-solid bread made from flour, water, and salt.

Confederate soldiers were supposed to be supplied with items such as bacon, sugar, tea, molasses, and cornmeal, but, as mentioned, that was never a guarantee. For both sides, “extravagances” such as sugar, tobacco, coffee, canned meat, sweets, and fresh and canned fruit could be purchased from sutlers, civilian merchants who followed the armies and sold ridiculously high-priced goods to homesick soldiers.

Due to blockades and the large number of battles fought in southern states, in the end, the South was virtually starved into submission. But because of our ancestors’ Civil War hardships, today we Southerners know how to make something out of nothing.

This morning, however, we did not focus on the era’s hardscrabble cuisine. Instead, the guns and cannon were loud and the music serene, and all reminded us of  the unthinkable loss suffered by both sides.

Rise of the Farmers Market

What's for sale at Rocking R Dairy stall, Red Stick Farmers Market, Baton Rouge

What’s for sale at Rocking R Dairy stall, Red Stick Farmers Market, Baton Rouge

One of the most exciting things to happen to “we who are food obsessed” is the climbing popularity of urban farmers markets. Just about every major U.S. city now has at least one, with purveyors offering locally grown produce and meats, products that are often organic and, at the least, have a minimum of additives. This trend is also helping participating farmers, who pay less transportation, handling, refrigeration, and storage costs.

The farmer to consumer concept certainly isn’t new. As a matter of fact, until relatively recently, it was the only way city folk could buy food. And it’s still the way groceries are bought in many parts of the world.

A few years ago I spent two months in France, where mega-supermarkets are rare, and where I, along with most natives, followed the age-old tradition of purchasing produce, meat, cheese, and a few things we’d consider exotic from farmers in local markets. Either covered or open-air, le marché is a fixture in even the tiniest of towns.

So, aside from offering foie gras and horse meat, French farmers markets differ from ours in this important aspect: In France, the farmers market is a continuing part of their heritage, while in America, we’re just getting around to reviving the practice. There is one exception, however, and that’s the French Market in New Orleans.

New Orleans French Market, 1910

New Orleans French Market, 1910

Originally called the New Orleans Meat Market, the French Market was started in 1791 and is America’s oldest public market. A remnant from the time when public markets were the only way to do business, this food-selling complex has weathered wars, fires, hurricanes, political upheaval, and the crippling supermarket trend. Today it’s a six-block-long space that’s part flea market and part farmers market. The French Market is a treasure to the world of food history, and is certainly worth a visit by anyone.

Although ours is relatively new, here in Baton Rouge, we’re standing in lines at the always-packed Red Stick Farmers Market, while, in addition to the French Market, New Orleans has the equally popular Crescent City and Sankofa markets. Farmers markets have also sprung up in Shreveport, Lake Charles, Lafayette, and Covington, as well as in smaller towns such as Luling, Elton, Winnsboro, Franklin, and Eunice.

You never know what you’ll find at a farmers market. In addition to produce picked just that morning, I’ve come home with Creole cream cheese, herb plants, honey, goat meat, freshly baked bread, cornish hens, live crabs, squash blossoms, and duck eggs. One time I even bought leaf lard, the milky white fat that surrounds a pig’s kidney (and that’s a whole story in itself).

So grab a shopping bag and a twenty dollar bill and head for your closest farmers market. Sniffing out locally produced food is all the rage, and it’s the best thing you can do to help small family farmers.

Hammond, Louisiana: Strawberry Capital of America

Linda Cannon and her daughter Kim

Linda Cannon and her daughter Kim

Had a great birthday lunch with my special friend Linda Cannon and her daughter Kim in Hammond, Louisiana, “The Strawberry Capital of America.”

The City of Hammond is north of New Orleans and east of Baton Rouge, and was founded around 1818 by Peter Hammond, a Swedish immigrant who started growing trees to carve into products for the maritime industry. In 1854, the railroad came through, which made the area extremely important agriculturally and, a little later, in dairy farming. In the late 19th century, Sicilian immigrants settled around Hammond, and they were (and still are) fantastic farmers, who shipped their produce to larger markets by rail.

imageHammond is the largest city in Tangipahoa Parish and the hub of Louisiana’s premier strawberry-growing region that includes the towns of Amite, Independence, and Ponchatoula, a town that calls itself the Strawberry Capital of the World. (Sounds like there’s a friendly rivalry going on).

Fried Catfish with Shrimp Creole at Brady's

Fried Catfish with Shrimp Creole at Brady’s

But back to lunch — we ate in the Historic Downtown District at the bistro-ish Brady’s. I had a perfectly medium-rare Asian tuna salad. Linda’s pasta with a light sauce and shrimp was delicately seasoned, and Kim’s fried catfish with shrimp Creole was an eye-popping dish large enough to fed all three of us.

Strawberry Waffle with Vanilla Ice Cream at Tope la

Strawberry Waffle with Vanilla Ice Cream at Tope la

For dessert we walked around the corner to the hip restaurant Tope la, where I just had to have something with strawberries. The strawberry waffles with vanilla ice cream filled that bill, and it also filled me up so much that on my way back to Baton Rouge I had to fight nodding off behind the wheel.

I learned three things on this trip: 1. Not much makes you happier than spending time with an old friend. 2. There are plenty of tempting restaurants in Hammond, a quaint and thriving town overshadowed by the larger New Orleans and Baton Rouge. 3. Just about every town in Louisiana began with an interesting story, one that we modern folks typically haven’t heard.

Discovering Natchitoches


Ft. St. Jean Baptiste (Six blocks south) Built about 1715 by request of Saint Denis to halt the Spanish expansion eastward. Natchitoches Indians, allies of the French, gave their name to the city.

Ft. St. Jean Baptiste (Six blocks south) Built about 1715 by request of Saint Denis to halt the Spanish expansion eastward. Natchitoches Indians, allies of the French, gave their name to the city.

Pop Quiz – What’s the oldest permanent European settlement in all of the Louisiana Purchase? If you guessed Natchitoches, Louisiana, you’re right!

I visited this charming little city this past weekend to attend my niece’s graduation from Northwestern University. Honestly, I didn’t expect to do much more than listen to speeches, give a few hugs, and slip back home. But a road sign reminded me that Nattchitoches was no ordinary town. So after the ceremony I sought out downtown and the Landmark Historic District, a 33-block area filled with wrought iron, stucco and old red brick, and lots and lots of history.

In 1714, French Canadian Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis made his way up the Red River and to the village of the Natchitoches Indians. Prosperous trading followed. By 1716, the French had built Fort St. Jean Baptiste des Natchitoches on the site to prevent the Spanish from advancing into Louisiana from Texas.

Until 1803, when Louisiana switched hands to the U.S., cotton and tobacco were planted by slaves of French-speaking Creoles, who were mainly from New Orleans. After Louisiana became part of the U.S., a population boom hit, with English-speaking northerners settling in the region and building substantial plantations.

An agriculture boom resulted. And in an attempt to create a short water route to Arkansas, a diversionary project was miscalculated and inadvertently caused the Red River to shift. This engineering blunder cut off the region’s access to the all-important Mississippi River and left behind a 33-mile oxbow lake known as Cane River Lake, which runs parallel to the city’s Main Street.

Then came the Civil War, and Union soldiers set the town on fire. But Confederate cavalry arrived just in time and distinguished the flames before everything was destroyed.

imageToday, a well-researched replica of Fort St. Jean sits a few hundred yards from the original site. But some of the most interesting architecture is found in the city’s well-preserved mercantile buildings, including the Kaffie-Frederick Hardware Store, that dates back to 1863 and has been operating continually since it was built.

Then, of course, there’s Oakland, Cherokee, and Melrose Plantations, and the Taylor-Cook House, a two-story, red brick charmer built in 1840, and where much of the movie Steel Magnolias was filmed.

Foodwise, Natchitoches is famous for its meat pies, which are made from a recipe that goes back 300 years. This savory little turnover is made of ground beef or pork and onions, peppers, garlic, and spices, and fried in a flour dough crust. Natchitoches meat pies resemble Spain’s empanada, and Chef John Folse believes the original version may have been developed by the Natchitoches Indians and improved by the Spanish (who, in colonial times, illegally traded with the French).

Most folks in Louisiana also know that Natchitoches is famous for its Christmas light festival. But this city offers so much more to see, especially if you’re wowed by American history.

Dooky Chase Restaurant More than Great Food

Here I am with Mrs. Leah Chase, the undisputed "Queen of Creole Cuisine."

Here I am with Mrs. Leah Chase, the undisputed “Queen of Creole Cuisine.”

Today I had lunch at Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans, where Leah Chase, the “Queen of Creole Cooking” still humbly reigns. This 90-year-old culinary icon cooks, writes books, and appears on TV. She also has too many awards and honors to list. Mrs. Chase’s husband Edgar “Dooky” II was there too, and, from behind the bar, made everyone he met feel like family. (Dooky’s father, the first Edgar/Dooky, started the restaurant in 1941).

Dooky Chase is located in Treme, a faubourg (sort of like a suburb) that, thanks to television, is now a household name. But before the cameras arrived, Treme was celebrated for being America’s oldest African American neighborhood. Aside from that distinction, the area was first to allow free people of color to buy land, with some records of Black ownership going back as far back as the 1700s.

Unfortunately, Treme fell victim to high water during Hurricane Katrina. But thanks to a lot of helping hands, the formerly flooded Dooky Chase is now spic-n-span and looking better than ever.

Mrs. Chase sent me off with an autographed cookbook, a few recipes for an upcoming newspaper column, and a desire to buy some of the fantastic art that hangs on the restaurant’s walls. I also left with a better understanding of why this place is always packed — the food is excellent and authentic Creole, the staff is professional and friendly, and the ambiance screams “you’re home.”