Around Louisiana

Regional reports from across the state

Northern

CAUSE TO CELEBRATE DIXIE IN RUSTON
I consider myself fortunate to have lived during the era, albeit waning at the time, when neighborhood theaters illuminated the night with the jeweled neon light marquees and lobbies that always smelled of popcorn. I find the mammoth movie complexes of today wanting in comparison when I remember theaters near my home in New Orleans such as the Poplar and the Tivoli or recall the dress-up trips downtown to view movies at the Saenger, Loew’s State or the Joy, where we paid a full dollar for admission.

In 1928, a movie theater named the Astor opened in Ruston, and the townspeople thrilled to the viewing of silent movies for a 10-cent admission price. During the decades that followed, it was renamed the Rialto, gained a stunning chandelier and changed owners five times. None of these changes caused anyone living in Ruston to lose their love for the old theater. During the ‘30s, it withstood a devastating conflagration and weathered the Depression. It was sold to the Dixie Corp.

in the ‘50s, and the company christened it with its own name. It was also air-conditioned and acquired its legendary flashing star atop the marquee. Ruston residents revered the old place with its marquee featuring titles through the years that could write a history of movies.

In 1996, The Dixie Center for the Arts convened and began carrying out their dream of restoring the theater. Considering it a cultural treasure,
the members held innovative fundraisers that garnered enough money to renovate the Dixie. Ten years later, she emerged refurbished and open for concerts and parties.

This January, country artist Pam Tillis will perform in concert there; March will see Jason Petty in Hank & My Honky Tonk Heroes, critically acclaimed by the New York Times, Variety and Rolling Stone, with a performance described as “channeling [Hank Williams’] ghost.”  

Every Wednesday through Friday, the lobby displays the wares of local artists and artisans, and Ruston natives can wander through perusing or just revisiting the scene of good times past.

The Dixie Center for the Arts, 212 N. Vienna, Ruston, (318) 255-1450
 
QUIRKY PLACES RAILROADS IN RUSTON
In present times, only the rumble and horn of freight trains can be heard resounding through downtown Ruston. But in the 19th century, Ruston owed its birth to railroads. In 1883, when the first railroad was built that connected Shreveport to Monroe, a depot opened that serviced passengers of the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific Depot Line, which now bears the name Illinois Central. The town that began to spring up around this depot became Ruston and filled with brisk business. Eventually, Ruston became the parish seat for Lincoln Parish.

The year 1901 saw the birth of the Arkansas Southern Line, now fondly known as the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific. This north-south connection used Ruston as a railroad junction – east-west passengers could change trains and head north or south. Ruston again saw a surge in business in the form of a lumber mill, an ice factory, a cottonseed mill and eventually six train depots and numerous railroad hotels, not to mention a railroad foundry.

Three of the original old depots still stand. At one point, the oldest remaining (circa 1900) was converted into a restaurant. Now it still stands, quietly watching over Ruston’s downtown Railroad Park.

Central

PROFILE
THE HEROES FROM ALEXANDRIA
Last November, Gov. Bobby Jindal presided over a changing of the guard ceremony that marked the transition of leaders for the Louisiana National Guard. The baton of leadership was passed from retiring Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau to Brig. Gen. Glenn H. Curtis, an Alexandria native. Jindal was unreserved in his appreciation to Landreneau, who helmed the National Guard during some of the blackest times recorded in the Bayou State, calling him a “real
hero to Louisiana and our entire country.”

“He’s been at my side every step of the way as we faced hurricanes, an oil spill and flooding,” Jindal said. ”No matter how many times we have called on Gen. Landreneau and the National Guard, they have always performed above and beyond the call of duty. We could spend all day talking about the heroic actions of Gen. Landreneau and his incredible leadership at the Louisiana National Guard, but the bottom line is that he has made the Louisiana National Guard a model for the nation.”

Landreneau, 64, appointed 14 years ago by Gov. Mike Foster, will now retire to the relative peace of a farm outside of Alexandria with Dolores, his wife.

The new head of the National Guard, Curtis, 49, is no stranger to strategic responsibilities. An LSU graduate, he earned a master’s degree of science in strategic studies from the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. He served as Landreneau’s director of the joint staff and chief adviser. An enlistee since 1982, he earned a commission two years later. In addition to serving as joint staff director, a job in which he commanded air and ground forces, Curtis was the commander of Joint Task Force Pelican and directed all military forces involved in emergency and contingency operations in the state.

At the ceremony, Curtis promised to carry on with the same “can-do attitude that our citizen soldiers have shown in the past.”

The citizen soldiers in the Louisiana National Guard total approximately 11,500; approximately 1,500 are airmen, and ground soldiers comprise the rest.
 
CAUSE TO CELEBRATE
MARDI GRAS IN ALEXANDRIA
Celebrating Fat Tuesday in Alexandria has become a most pleasant tradition for the past 19 years. Through the auspices of the Alexandria Mardi Gras Association, or AMGA, the season of Fat Tuesday celebration has become a significant social and cultural happening that’s grown in participation and size, spreading merry madness, colorful celebrations and just pure fun. Replete with a Mardi Gras parade and a children’s Mardi Gras parade sweeter than King Cake the preceding Saturday, the celebration paints the town purple, green and gold with family-oriented revelry. At least 22 krewes bearing names like Alexandra, Anastasia, Boogaloo, Gratiae, Gumbo YaYa, Parlangua and Persephone keep the social scene lively with splendid Mardi Gras balls.

The Krewe of Gratiae is an all-woman krewe, and the name translates into “Graces,” a direct reference to the three Greek Graces, Aglaea (Splendor), Euphrosyne (Mirth) and Thalia (Good Cheer). According to the AMGA, the legend of the Graces is clearly visible in the stars when the skies embrace the music, dance and merriment that is Mardi Gras.

This Cenla celebration kicks off on Twelfth Night (Jan. 6) with an Epiphany Party at England Air Park, featuring the band Stormy. The Krewe of Antiqua will host a Mardi Gras Masquerade Party on Feb. 9. The Alexandria Zoo will be the site of a King Cake Party the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, with the entire festive season culminating with the big parade on Mardi Gras Day.

For a complete list of events, visit www.alexmardigras.com

Cajun

FORK IN THE ROAD
METAIRIE’S LOSS IS LAFAYETTE’S GAIN
For many years it was my good fortune to live within walking distance of Charley G’s restaurant, housed atop Heritage Plaza in Metairie, overlooking the 17th Street Canal that divided Jefferson from Orleans Parish. The minute you entered the lobby, your nose was delightfully assailed by the perfume of smoked – something. Metairie’s loss became Lafayette’s gain when the eatery re-located.

I still have warmest memories of their peerless smoked duck-and-andouille gumbo, an enchanted brew of tender textures exploding in flavors of wood smoke and spices beautifully imparted to the smooth pot liquor – and still offered on its Lafayette menu. Appetizers abound with scrumptious and clever combinations of ingredients: Flatbread is grilled with prosciutto, goat cheese, golden beets, figs and roasted garlic mingling together. Tuna tartare here is a plated canvas of seaweed salad sprinkled with ginger vinaigrette, tobiko (flying fish roe) and wonton chips. Coconut shrimp get a surprising and perfect Cajun infusion of zydeco pepper jelly; the same perky jelly accompanies the delicious Smoked Duck & Tasso Spring Rolls.

One bone of contention I usually have with restaurants that offer splendid entrées is that their imagination usually stops with the side orders – this isn’t the case with Charley G’s. Their side orders make me wish they offered a vegetable plate. The Charley G’s Blue Point Béchamel Crab Cakes, so imperial with flavor, are accompanied by Creole green beans and a smooth bell pepper coulis. Tender, succulent Wood Grilled Sea Bass arrives with a serving of the wonderful Cajun dish corn macque choux, crisp okra and a Creole mustard vinaigrette. The Crispy Duck – crunchy skin with tender meat within – is perfectly accented by roasted corn cooked into a pudding, a glaze created with Deshotels’ black mission fig jelly and the delightful Creole green beans.

Filet mignon and rib-eye steaks are grilled over hardwoods from the South, with smashed Yukon gold potatoes and grilled asparagus also in attendance.

Charley G’s, 3809 Ambassador Caffery Parkway, Lafayette, (337) 981-0108

NEWS BRIEF
UNITED HOUMA NATION SEEKS FEDERAL RECOGNITION
The Courier of Houma recently filed a report that seems just one more entry into the sad saga of the United Houma Nation Indian tribe, based in Golden Meadow. They are still desperately trying to obtain federal recognition as a tribe – something that would greatly assist them in the form of better health care, education, housing and economic development for the southern-most Louisiana parishes. Since LaSalle “discovered” these people back in 1682, when they were counted between 600 and 700 strong, encounters with European disease cut that amount in half. Although the red crawfish was a war emblem of the tribe, these peace-loving people actually used the symbol to distinguish themselves from other American Indians. The women were the tribal planters who cultivated the black Louisiana soil to yield pumpkins, melons, beans and corn; the men were hunters. Tribal conflicts with the Tunica and tensions with colonists kept the Houma people moving southward until they stopped wandering in Terrebonne Parish.

According to the Courier, an effort started by most of the tribe’s younger members resulted in the creation of a digital petition on the White House’s Web site for federal recognition, a struggle that has been ongoing for decades. Twenty-five-thousand signatures are required to waylay a final denial by the federal government; by early November, the amount of online signatures had reached more than 2,000. One of the sad grains of fallout from lack of federal recognition for the 10,000-plus members of the Houma tribe was denial of grant money that stemmed from the Gulf oil disaster – the tribe applied for money to cover the salary of a social worker to help with the overflowing claim applications from Houma Indians; due to lack of federal recognition, the claim
was refused.

United Houma Nation, Golden Meadow, www.unitedhoumanation.org.

Baton Rouge/Plantation Country

FORK IN THE ROAD
BIG HEAD’S IN GROSSE TETE
It’s been said that the village of Grosse Tete (French for “big head”) was named after a Choctaw Indian with a huge noggin (whether from actual head size or scope of personal braggadocio is not really clear). West of Baton Rouge and east of the Atchafalaya spillway, Grosse Tete is home to a really fine eating establishment named Big Head’s Bar-B-Q. The food served up in this local eatery deserves all bragging rights. Tender barbecue with the perfect smoked flavor permeating the meat and a sauce with just the right balance of tang, texture, sweetness and spice are offered here in the form of chicken; ribs; rib racks; brisket; or the sampler, composed of half of a chicken, ribs and barbecued sausage. These may be savored as individual dinners or as family packs of rib racks or 1-pound helpings of either pulled pork or brisket. You can enjoy your meal there in this rustic-looking building or take it home. The barbecue dinners are served with traditional side orders of creamy potato salad and barbecue beans. Appetizers are perfect predecessors to the down-home fare: stuffed jalapeño peppers or jalapeño cheese fries, fried pickles, onion rings and links of barbecued sausage. They do a pretty mean version of mouth-watering fried chicken, as well.

But Big Head’s doesn’t just limit itself to fare for the hale, hearty and well-met; they’ve shown themselves to be pretty savvy with the creation of other imaginative entrées. Cindy Lou on the Bayou is a beautiful-to-behold, lovely-to-eat dish of shrimp with a slab of fried catfish in a velvety, creamy white sauce cradled by pasta with garlic bread thrown in for good measure to help soak up the sauce. The Bayou Cat is an almost pumpkin-colored rendition of crawfish étouffée with the aforementioned slab of fried catfish served over rice. Garnering rave reviews from patrons who measure the success of a dish by the amount of napkins they use are the Sloppy Roast Beef Po-Boy and the Sloppy Rib-Eye
Po-Boy.

Big Head’s Bar-B-Q, 17445 Sidney Road, Grosse Tete, (225) 648-2101

LOUISIANA-GROWN
BLADES OF GLORY IN BATON ROUGE
Some of the gutsy, completely off-the-wall and successful play calls made by LSU Tigers football head coach Les Miles have earned him the moniker The Mad Hatter. Adding to this quirky aura of Miles is his penchant, during the heat of a game, for leaning down on the field, plucking a blade of grass and nibbling on it.

It’s become the stuff of legend ever since the television camera lens captured it on a national broadcast last season. Miles has been ribbed almost unmercifully since the incident and seems to enjoy all the teasing with much good humor.

So in honor of this individual oddity of this most successful Tiger coach, the Department of Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain recently announced that Miles will be the poster boy for Louisiana’s turfgrass industry. Ads began running last autumn in an effort
to promote Louisiana-grown turfgrass.

In an article filed by Ed Anderson of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Strain had this to say regarding the choice of Miles for the job: “We couldn’t have dreamed of a better spokesperson for Louisiana turfgrass than Les Miles. Les is not only a national championship-winning head coach and a respected figure in the state, but he also happens to have a genuine appreciation of turfgrass.”

Not long after the announcement, Miles commented: “Nothing beats Louisiana-grown turfgrass. It’s local, fresh and reliable. And it’s the grass of champions whether you chew it for luck or not.”

The ad features Miles clad in his LSU purple shirt, signature dorky white cap and headset, standing beside a heap of turfgrass. It is emblazoned with the motto, “You don’t have to chew it to love it.”

Greater New Orleans

FORK IN THE ROAD
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN IN ST. BENEDICT
There was a time before either my older brother or I had reached adolescence when talk around the dinner table would center on what we’d become when we grew up. For a long time I wanted to be a cowgirl like Dale Evans and then an actress, but Tim always said he’d be an architect – or a priest. He chose Thomas for his confirmation name because, as he put it, Aquinas had been “a brain.” When he graduated eighth grade, he entered the seminary at St. Joseph’s Abbey in St. Benedict, where he stayed for two years and then left. St. Joseph’s educated seminarians to be secular priests or humble brothers, of whom Tim often spoke with much admiration, quiet hooded followers of Christ who tended the cows and the gardens, worked with their hands and chanted litany like choirs of angels in the stained-glass light of St. Joseph’s Church.

This quiet abbey is over a century old now, and the monks on the premises still carry on the tradition of  profound spiritual enrichment in the form of teaching, quiet industry and assisting the needy. There, on the hushed green grounds, what was once a small milking parlor was transformed into a bakery with state-of-the-art ovens from which the heavenly smell of baking bread emanates. In October 1990, the Pennies for Bread and the Abbey program began baking 1,000 loaves a week to feed the needy. Today, they slice, bag and distribute 2,000 loaves twice weekly via their own delivery truck to designated charitable organizations. This kind, nondenominational donation saves these organizations a lot of dough to use for other badly needed services. In the true spirit of casting your bread upon the waters to get it back again, financing comes from  personal or corporate gifts.

To donate, contact:
Pennies for Bread and the Abbey
75376 River Road
St. Benedict, LA 70457
(985) 867-2242

WORTH WATCHING
SOAP FOR THE SOUL
As night follows day, Lent follows Mardi Gras. I’ve heard ministers use the word “Lent” as an acronym for “Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking”; others use it as a time of sacrifice and fasting every day but Sunday. But overall, I think that, in whatever form you follow, Lent is a time for cleansing, and as a kind of sudsy metaphor for this thought, Brother Andrew, the sacristan for St. Joseph’s Abbey, recently set up a tiny soap factory in the craft room of the monastery. Surrounded by Crock-Pots, shelves and soap molds, the good brother began experimenting with the creation of artisanal soap to sell to benefit the abbey and its many good causes. He has been tweaking and perfecting his new creation, calling his fellow brothers “consumer testers.” The monks approve
wholeheartedly.

“St. Benedict says that when monks work with their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks,” he says. “We’re going to start off small, making a batch of 25 bars every day, and see where it goes. If people respond and the soap sells, I’ll make more.”

The thick rectangular bars are the color of beeswax and at present remain anonymous, only referred to as Monk’s Soap. A tiny crusade is on to help christen these cleansing blocks with a suitable name.

Brother Andrew once managed the Abbey Gift Shop and received many requests from visitors to purchase something handcrafted by the monks. He feels this sudsy creation just may be the answer.

At the moment, packaging design ideas are in the capable hands of Brother Simon. “They say cleanliness is next to godliness, so if we can help people get godly, we’re willing to do our part, whether it’s washing their hands or sitting in church,” says Brother Andrew.

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