Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section.
BATON ROUGE, La. – The newspaper racks are purple. The portable toilets are purple.
Distance from Columbia: 699 miles by car.
LSU enrollment: 28,985.
Fight Song: "Fight for LSU"
Football Coach: Les Miles (75–17, sixth season)
Basketball Coach: Trent Johnson (38-28, third season)
Southern Baton Rouge is home to Louisiana State University, and that has turned much of the campus and the area surrounding it purple.
On apartment buildings and fences, the purple is more pastel than the bright color of the drawstring bags of students walking around the campus on a Friday afternoon. A student walks past wearing a T-shirt that describes the commitment to the school colors as, “Love purple, live gold.”
LSU loves purple.
A river runs through it
A 20-minute drive from campus on Highland Drive leads to downtown Baton Rouge, which is sleepy after 5 p.m. on a Friday. In a few hours, some bars will become more populated as older college students head out for the weekend. But currently, like the business areas of most cities, downtown Baton Rouge is empty after the business week concludes.
Baton Rouge is a city in a balancing act. Louisiana’s second largest city is caught between two major influences: the culture of the business-driven state capital and the student culture of four universities, one of which happens to be the current SEC football champion.
There are a few people sitting on the black metal benches that line the Mississippi River levee. Two friends are swapping gossip. Two benches down from them, a man and a woman are watching the river while listening to music from the speakers on the man’s phone.
The Mississippi River is not majestic. Here in Louisiana, it is a river mostly used for industry. Cargo ships carrying grain, crude and cars from the south enter the Port of Baton Rouge to transfer their shipments to rails and pipelines. Barges and cargo ships from previous deliveries sit in the river, the metal slowly rusting to a dull orange.
Farther down, stairs turn into a ramp that ends in the river, although it isn’t steep enough to prevent those who really wanted to baptize themselves in the gray-brown water. Heads, tails and legs of crawfish, bleached to light orange from the sun, litter the concrete steps.
Friday is crawfish night
Crawfish, one of the staples of the Louisiana diet, are served boiled Friday nights at The Chimes. The smaller cousins of lobsters are served heaped on blue metal trays at least 14 inches in diameter. Crawfish turned as red as a sunburn are paired with potatoes and corn on the cob, the traditional sides.
In Louisiana, the small crustaceans are also known as “mudbugs.” In the eastern U.S., they’re “crayfish.” In the Midwest, “crawdad” is common.
The Chimes is known for its traditional Cajun food and 130 different varieties of beer. The menu includes crawfish, oysters, shrimp, alligator, salmon and grits. The restaurant is located on the north end of campus, in the middle of Tiger country.
The LSU-Arkansas baseball game is on the TVs at The Chimes, but during the 36-minute wait for a table, the conversation turns to football.
“If you say LSU, people think football,” said Amber Hansen, a junior studying elementary education.
During the fall football season, the LSU campus and the surrounding areas virtually shut down during a game. And don’t expect to get anywhere fast in the traffic that streams into the city. Hansen joked that the game is a great time to get work done in the dorms because no one else is around.
Hansen, originally from Illinois, came to LSU for the academics and to be closer to family who live in the area.
“I love that you have 93,000 other people in there cheering with you,” she said.
Hansen pointed to being in the LSU student section as one of her favorite parts of a football game. The LSU student section is known for its coordinated cheers and commitment to stay for the entire game.
A night in Tigerland
In the evenings, many LSU students find their way to Tigerland, a square block south of campus that is home to five bars, all of which seem to cater directly to the college crowd.
A yellow sign spelling out “TIGERLAND” is stuck into the grassy median that divides the two-lane road that leads into the area. Cars are parked eight rows across, 18 cars deep on both sides of the street on gravel in front of the bars.
The marquees outside Fred’s and Reggie’s advertise an open bar from 8 to 10 p.m. for LSU students with a valid student ID, and Fred’s is hosting a drunken spelling bee the next day. Next to JL’s Place is a yellow-and-purple striped tent where a live band is playing.
At 10:45 p.m., there are already students leaning against the bus stop, half asleep waiting for the next shuttle. Students wander from bar to bar, holding tall cans of beer in paper bags. The drink of choice here is cheap beer.
Across town, northeast of campus, at Duvic’s, the drink of choice is a martini. The bar is tucked underneath Interstate 10 with two other bars frequented by a mixed group of LSU students and young professionals.
Alison Piccolo, one of the bartenders at Duvic’s and a senior at LSU, says she’s been to the bars in Tigerland, but prefers the atmosphere of the places on this side of the city.
“I could list all the reasons I wouldn’t go there,” she said. “They make you pay $10 to get in and then I can’t figure out what I just paid $10 for.”
The next morning, many of those who spent their Friday night in Tigerland have moved to tailgates for today’s LSU spring game. For others, Saturday mornings are spent at the Red Stick Farmer’s Market, which shuts down Fifth Street between Main and North streets from 8 a.m. until noon.
Springtime in Louisiana is crawfish and strawberry season. At the market, the berries are more plentiful than the crustaceans, which are mainly found at specialized seafood stores. White cardboard containers of the bright red fruit, smaller than those found in the grocery store, are stacked to waist level in front of the produce stands.
William Fletcher is the ninth generation of his family to farm on the land in Ponchatoula, La., a city 46 miles east of Baton Rouge and the unofficial strawberry capital of Louisiana. He said he’s been coming to the market every weekend since 1998.
“If the Lord allows me to do it, I’ll keep doing it until the day I die,” he said.
On Main and Fifth streets, Luca Di Martino stands outside his white delivery truck that has been converted to a gelato truck. Di Martino has been driving his gelato truck for the past four years. He offers samples of his gelato to visitors at the market.
“It’s the best in the world,” said Di Martino in his Italian accent that hasn’t yet been masked by the long "a" of the Louisiana drawl.
A woman stops to sample the Vanilla Chai Tea flavor and walks away with a pint of the flavor. The cold treat is lighter than ice cream and much creamier. Besides Vanilla Chai Tea, Latte E Miele, Di Martino's business, is also serving milk and honey, mint chocolate and honey-roasted bell pepper out of the window on the passenger’s side of the truck.
Baton Rouge is the type of city where people wish you a good weekend when they pass you on the street. It is the type of city where people call you “baby” instead of “dear” or “ma’am.”
“I’ll take whatever you’ve got,” is Di Martino’s response to a customer who is $2 short of the $5 needed for a cup of gelato. “I want you to walk away with a smile.”
A visit to Mike
Across town, it’s football that is putting a smile on the faces of LSU fans. LSU supporters treat their Spring Game, the annual exhibition game, with less intensity than their scheduled season games. But at 11:30 a.m., two hours before the game starts, the closed streets surrounding Tiger Stadium are filled with fans, many wearing “Geaux Tigers.” The spelling is a spin on the French-Cajun influence in the area. In French, “eaux” is pronounced the same as the long English “o.”
And for many, no football game is complete without a visit to Mike the Tiger.
A sign outside the enclosure reads, “ATTENTION, PLEASE! NO PETS ALLOWED IN TIGER HABITAT AREA!”
There are no small animals among the small crowd gathered on the southwest corner of the enclosure, but it is hard to imagine the tiger inside would be willing to make the effort to attack any pets right now. Mike, the live version of LSU’s mascot, is currently expending most of his energy panting in the southern Louisiana heat and humidity. His biggest movement during the afternoon was rolling over onto his back.
This is LSU’s sixth Mike. The tiger formally known as Roscoe was introduced to the community in 2007. In 1936, the first Mike was brought to campus after being purchased from the Little Rock Zoo. He was named after the athletic trainer at the time, Mike Chambers. Mike I reigned until 1956 — the longest reign of any of the succeeding tigers.
Mike lives by himself on the west side of campus, across the street from Tiger Stadium and next to the basketball arena. The enclosure is open 24 hours a day to whomever happens to wander by, or fans can check in on Mike online via webcam.
Two chain-link fences separate Mike from his visitors. A finely woven mesh is stretched across the top of the habitat to prevent objects from being thrown into the cage. The current 15,000-square foot enclosure was built in 2005 and includes a waterfall and a pond. Mike’s only interest today though, seems to finding a spot of shade.
Despite the ethical debate over having a live mascot, including a plea from PETA to not acquire a new tiger after the death of Mike V, many LSU students embrace the tiger as a member of the family. “We’re by Mike,” one says by way of directions to the person on the other end of his cell phone call.
Megan Reynolds will start at LSU in the fall, but she says she’s been visiting Mike since her brother started at the university. It’s tradition now for her to stop by the enclosure whenever she’s on campus. She says she understands why people would question the necessity of LSU having a live mascot, but believes Mike is content with his lifestyle.
“He lives like a king,” she said.
Mike is popular this afternoon, but there are LSU fans around the entire perimeter of the stadium. Some are standing in shade watching the live band. Others are gathering near where the marching band is setting up. Most are just enjoying the prospect of seeing some football.
As in spring games at most universities, LSU will take the field against itself. The game gives fans the chance to see different plays, new recruits and a peek at what will happen next fall. The focus is not on winning or losing, but watching a good football game. “And no injuries,” said Timothy Wall, 26. “Please God, no injuries.”
Wall no longer attends LSU but still drives an hour for the football games. He says it’s the atmosphere that keeps him coming back. He thinks you have to witness it for yourself to understand it, but he describes feeling like he is part of a big family when he’s in Tiger Stadium.
“When the band starts playing the fight song, I get goosebumps,” he said.
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.