Farm to table in Louisiana

Story and photos by Claire Walter

Louisiana agriculture runs counter to Colorado’s calendar. In the Deep South, where okra is about the only vegetable able to withstand summer’s searing heat, the cooler months are prime growing season. Farmers’ market stalls are piled high with fresh produce. Restaurants have a literal and figurative field day, with a staggering variety of seasonal dishes on their menus.

Early Louisiana settlers exploited the rich soil, long growing season, plentiful seafood from the Gulf of Mexico and game from the swamps to develop dishes that put Louisiana on the world food map—especially the Cajun and Creole cuisines.

Today’s Cajuns are descendants of the French settlers whom the English expelled from Acadia (now Nova Scotia) in the 18th century, bringing with them robust French country cooking. French, Spanish, Caribbean and African blood runs in the veins of American-born Creoles, who developed a more refined cuisine. Over time, Cajun and Creole foods intertwined and use many of the same ingredients. But few visitors are concerned about the precise provenance of such Louisiana specialties as gumbo, catfish, boiled crawfish, crawfish étouffée, spicy jambalaya, boudin and andouille sausages, red beans and rice, pralines, Bourbon-soaked bread pudding or red velvet cake.

Good, locally grown food is a natural focus for a trip that more or less follows the Mississippi. Check out Louisiana’s Culinary Trails to pick an itinerary bound by a food thread.

The 80 or so miles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans make for a fine road trip. Avoid the Interstates, follow the blue highways, stop in historic towns where time has stood still and visit grandiose antebellum plantation houses, eating along the way. This itinerary can be done from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, in the other direction, or as a loop. I recently ate my way from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, zigzagging across the river and crossing Lake Pontchartrain from the Northshore to the Crescent City via a causeway that, at nearly 24 miles, is the world’s longest such bridge completely over water.

Baton Rouge: capital eating

Tony's Seafood
Tony Pizzolato established
Tony’s Market in Baton Rouge in 1949.
From left, Tad, Tony (the first Tony’s grandson),
Bill, Blaine and Darren

Baton Rouge, the state capital, also is the unofficial capital of Cajun and Creole cuisine. The city has two farmers’ markets (one year-round, one seasonal) and hosts the annual Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, a lively street fair with such fun as crustacean races, crawfish eating contests, an étouffée cookoff, Zydeco music and Cajun dancing.

At Tony’s Seafood, the Pizzolato family has been feeding seafood to the masses for half a century. Stop by for fabulous crawfish, étouffée, po’boys, gumbo, fried oysters, crab, redfish and other time-honored classics, and pick up some Louisiana seasonings or fish-fry breading to recreate these specialties at home.

Baton Rouge serves as the gateway to the River Road, known for its stately homes and historic sites along the Mississippi. Some grand plantations now house museums, some are bed-and-breakfast inns and some are notable restaurants. Nottoway Plantation, a landmark 64-room mansion built in 1859, is all three. Tour the house, bunk down in an antique-filled room and taste the Old South’s new cuisine at The Mansion Restaurant. Executive chef David Reyes cooks contemporary cuisine with natural, organic ingredients, including herbs and produce from his kitchen garden.

Along the Tammany Trace Trail

Besides great food, Louisiana has a lot of oxygen and a lot of flat terrain. Rent a bike and follow the 31-mile Tammany Trace Trail, a former rail line that links communities on Lake Pontchartrain’s Northshore. Or drive St. Tammany Parish’s byways to find farmers’ markets and neat restaurants. Start the day with down-home specialties at Louie & The Redhead Lady in Mandeville, where every breakfast comes with creamed spinach, or Creole Bagelry in Slidell, where bagels might drawl but still can be ordered with a schmear.

Covington has two weekly farmers’ markets. The Sunday market is the biggest and Camellia City in Slidell is the newest. As a traveler, you probably won’t buy the farm-fresh produce, hand-picked eggs from free-range chickens or live plants, but do try some ready-to-eat foods, baked goods and jars of pickles, preserves and sauces. While you’re in Slidell, visit Passionate Platter to tour the herb garden or take a cooking class using farm-fresh foods.

If you don’t munch a lunch at a farmers’ market, stop at Pontchartrain Po’Boys in Mandeville or the original Bear’s Restaurant in Covington for overstuffed po’boys, but leave room for dinner. For the finest of fine-dining experiences, make a reservation at La Provence, New Orleans chef John Besh’s stellar French restaurant in Lacombe. A small backyard farm supplies some of the restaurant’s herbs, veggies, berries, eggs and dairy products.

Food renaissance in New Orleans
Little Sparrow Farm
Sparrow Farm, an urban micro-farm
in MidCity New Orleans

What the world knows as Katrina, locals refer to as “the storm.” Five years later, much has been reopened (especially in the French Quarter and other tourist and affluent areas), much has been rebuilt and yet too much is still devastated. More than 65,000 blighted properties and vacant lots are scattered around the city. The Lower Ninth Ward still has so many empty lots that if the land were cultivated, it could feed the city. Seeing it will break your heart. It broke mine.

Renowned chefs and restaurateurs like John Besh, Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme and the Brennans opened their hearts, their food stocks and their wallets to help their beloved city cope with the storm. Since then, grassroots movements to localize agriculture have blossomed. Chefs are committed to supporting local growers, farmers’ markets are again in high gear and urban gardens have sprung up around town.

The Food and Farm Network, established in 2002, well before Katrina, encourages urban agriculture from a 38-acre farm being developed in an East New Orleans Vietnamese community to scattered vest-pocket farms. The most accessible to visitors is Mid-City’s Little Sparrow Farm, a remarkable micro-farm on the corner of South Cortez and Cleveland, that produces eggplant, okra, carrots, collards, kale, Swiss chard, turnips, mesculin and flowers that attract beneficial insects. From a modest 30 by 100-foot lot, urban farmer Marilyn Yank produces enough to stock a little farmstand, to sell to the Ruby Slipper Café across the street.

Farmers like Yank are setting an example for other residents, and for visitors who can draw inspiration and ideas for growing and cooking their own fresh food.

Nottoway, once a sugarcane plantation,
is now a museum, country inn and fine restaurant.
Canefields still adjoin its remaining 38 acres

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