I cannot recommend highly enough A.J. Liebling’s 1960 book The Earl Of Louisiana, which is about Louisiana’s, um, colorful Gov. Earl K. Long, Huey’s brother and, in Earl’s own words, “a red-hot poppa.” Liebling keeps referring to Louisiana’s political culture at the time as like that of Lebanon, given the fractious and unstable coalition of people of different religions, geographies, and classes, plus the overall culture of laissez-faire with regard to political ethics. I’m at the beach in Alabama today, so will be away from keys for most of the day, but please, savor these descriptions from the book. Things have changed a lot over the last 50 years, but some of this still resonates:
“It’s the most complex state in the South,” my companion said. “In just about every one of the others you have the same battle between the poor-to-middling farmers on the poor lands — generally in the hills — that didn’t justify an investment in slaves before the war, and the descendants of the rich planters on the rich lands, who held slaves by the dozen to the gross. Slaves were a mighty expensive form of agricultural machinery, with a high rate of depreciation. You could only use them to advantage on land that produced a cash crops. We had that same basic conflict, and it lasted longer than anywhere else, for reasons I’m going to give, but in addition, we have a lot that are all our own. In the other states it was just between poor Anglo-Saxon Protestant whites and rich Anglo-Saxon Protestant whites. But here we got poor French Catholic whites and poor Anglo-Saxon whites and rich French Catholic whites and rich Anglo-Saxon Protestant whites. Sometimes the Catholic French get together against the Anglo-Saxon Protestants and sometimes the rich of both faiths get together against the poor, or the poor against the rich.
“And there’s always been another problem in Louisiana that no other Southern state has. There are other large collections of people living close together in the South, but they are not big cities, just overgrown country towns like Atlanta. They fight over unessentials. The regime that ran Louisiana right on from the Purchase discouraged the idea that a man had the right to live decently. It was new stuff down here when Huey put it out: ‘Share Our Wealth’; ‘Every Man a King,’ and remember, he got to be Governor four years before Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President. Huey got after the out-state oil companies and the in-state oil companies, and the old-family bench and bar that held with the out-state money, and anybody that gave him an argument for any reasons he blackened with being a hireling of Standard Oil. I don’t know how much money he made out of it, but certainly less than a lot of politicians make taking the easy money side.
This passage, from the journey Liebling is making north from New Orleans with his above interlocutor to a political rally in Alexandria, in the middle of the state, explains why it’s so damn hard to get a good meal north of New Orleans, or outside of French Louisiana. It’s why Baton Rouge has more in common with Shreveport, on the culinary front, than it does with New Orleans, which is not that far away:
We got hungry and stopped at a glass-and-Monel-metal hangar that advertised “Shrimp, BarBQue, PoBoy” (this last the Louisiana term for what we call Italian hero sandwiches). The BarBQue was out, the shrimps stiff with inedible batter, the coffee desperate. Southern cooking, outside New Orelans, is just about where Frederick Law Olmsted left it when he wrote The Cotton Kingdom. A PoBoy at Mumfrey’s in New Orleans is a portable banquet. In the South proper, it is a crippling blow to the intestine.
“We’re hitting a new culture belt,” I said. “This is the kind of cooking that goes right on up the center of the United States with the Mississippi until it hits the Great Lakes. It’s nearer akin to what we’d get in a roadside diner in La Grange, Illinois, than to the poorest oyster bar in New Orleans, sixty miles behind us.”
Here’s where it gets profound:
Tom, New Orleans born, of parents born there, said, “You’re right on that. We’re Mediterranean. I’ve never been to Greece or Italy, but I’m sure I’d be at home there as soon as I landed.”
He would, too, I thought. New Orleans resembles Genoa or Marseilles, or Beirut or the Egyptian Alexandria more than it does New York, although all seaports resemble on another more than they can resemble any place in the interior. Like Havana and Port-au-Prince, New Orleans is within the orbit of a Hellenistic world that never touched the North Atlantic. The Mediterranean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico form a homogeneous, though interrupted, sea. New York and Cherbourg and Bergen are in a separate thalassic system.
Hellenism followed the Mediterranean littoral; it spread to the shores of the Caribbean and Gulf. The Hellenistic world stopped short of the Atlantic edge of Europe, but its Roman conquerors got there with a version of Reader’s Digest form, like Irish missionaries of a Jewish religion. Culture on both shores of the North Atlantic is therefore a paraphrase, as if Choctaws had learned English from Cherokees.
The Mediterraneans who settled the shores of the interrupted sea scurried across the gap between the Azores and Puerto Rico like a woman crossing a drafty hall in a sheer nightgown to get to a warm bed with a man in it. Old, they carried with them a culture that had ripened properly, on the tree. Being sensible people, they never went far inland. All, or almost all, the interior of North America was therefore filled in from the North Atlantic Coast, by the weakest element in that incompletely civilized population — those who would move away from salt water.
The middle of Louisiana is where the culture of one great thalassic littoral impinges on the other, and a fellow running for Governor has got to straddle the line between them.
I beg you to read The Earl Of Louisiana. Adam Gopnik once called it the greatest single piece of writing ever to appear in The New Yorker. I can believe it.
And now, people, I am off to the beach for a few hours. Behave yourselves.
UPDATE: Here’s a good illustration of the difference between food culture in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. They are so close to each other geographically, but consider the attention the local newspapers give to food. Here’s a restaurant review from last Friday’s Baton Rouge Advocate. Excerpt:
When we ordered fried pickles as our appetizer, Tina suggested we try the fried pickle/fried jalapeno combo ($5.95). “They’re not that hot,” she said of the peppers. We agreed. Both the pickles and peppers were coated in a light batter and fried, done but not super-crispy. A ranch dipping sauce which tasted homemade was a nice cool complement to the little bit of heat the peppers did have. Delicious.
As we awaited our entrees, we sipped iced tea ($1.99, free refills) and took in the decor. Walls painted in a bright teal were offset by stained concrete flooring in muted tones. Seafood themed art, much of it done in copper, accented the walls. Several flat-screen televisions, all tuned to sporting events with the sound turned down, were placed around the dining room and adjacent bar. Also over at the bar, three colorful stuffed parrots hung from their perches.
The Advocate‘s reviews are like Marilyn Hagerty’s. By contrast, the New Orleans Times-Picayune employs a serious restaurant reviewer, Brett Anderson (though laying him off in 2012 was an incredibly stupid move; thank goodness they hired him back). The Times-Pic’s food and dining coverage is in another universe from the Advocate’s. Then again, they cover a serious food culture, which Baton Rouge is not. Same part of the state, but different worlds.