Saturday, From Scratch
Recounting a culinary pilgrimage to Baton Rouge, Louisiana
“The sun has found its home in the western sky, and it is Saturday night in Death Valley,” the Tiger Stadium public address announcer intones, and the crowd roars in response.
Now let’s rewind about 13 hours.
It is very early Saturday morning in Death Valley.
The sun is still in bed, presumably sleeping off a wild Friday night.
I’d traveled to Louisiana for the express purpose of joining a tailgate put on by the DVA Tailgating crew, and that’s how I found myself helping to set up in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning. A thin crescent moon still hung low over the tile-roofed buildings on Louisiana State University’s Baton Rouge campus, which was quiet save for the sound of a few generators running in the distance.
Zach, the head chef for the group and my host for the weekend, moved with purpose as he set up a pair of giant cast-iron pots over massive propane burners for today’s cook. Executing a tailgate on this scale is a Herculean effort, and cooking would have to start by 6:00am if the food was to be ready before the game’s 2:30pm kickoff.
In fact, preparations were already well underway before Saturday morning.
I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of tailgate spots near LSU’s Tiger Stadium aren’t reserved via official permit, but rather through a system of informal dibs and mutual understanding. That is, you just know who’s spot that is, and they know which one is yours.
Friday afternoon—as soon as the gates to campus were opened for the weekend—we’d dropped off the frames for the group’s tailgating canopies, not fully erecting them, but stretching them out to stake an approximate footprint of the planned operation on Saturday.
“What happens if someone moves your tents?”, I asked.
“We’ll be there before them on Saturday, so we’d just move theirs back,” Zach explained. “But that doesn’t really happen. Everyone around here knows everyone else. This is just to let them know we’re coming this weekend.”
I’d come here because I’ve always wanted to see a game at LSU’s Tiger Stadium—one of the largest stadiums in the world and one of the loudest, most storied venues in college football—but I’d also come because I wanted to help cook. I love Cajun food, but as an Ohioan who didn’t grow up on it, I couldn’t say I knew much about doing it properly. Zach and I have been friends through Twitter for a long time, and after salivating over photo of the elaborate tailgate spreads I’ve seen him produce, I had leapt at his invitation to join this effort for what promised to be a tight late-October matchup against an undefeated Ole Miss team.
I was excited about the game. I was more excited to cook.
To pull off the dishes he’d planned to have in tailgaters’ hands by lunchtime—a classic chicken-and-sausage gumbo, pork sauce piquant, and crawfish étouffée—Zach had already done a vast amount of prep work, including butchering some twenty pounds of pork shoulder, chicken thighs, andouille sausage and crawfish tails, chopping gallons of Trinity (the mixture of green bell peppers, onions, and celery that forms the essential base for many Cajun dishes), bagging up spices and neatly ordering it all so it could be efficiently pulled from the army of coolers unloaded Saturday morning.
It wasn’t just a matter of convenience; it was a matter of logistical necessity.
Saturday morning, the first thing we had to do was make a roux.
It sounds simple enough—heat fat, add flour, and cook—but it’s something I’ve never been able to quite master myself, at least not the kind of deep, dark-brown roux that would deliver a gumbo of the proper color. The few times I’d attempted gumbo, my end product was tasty enough, but disappointingly blonde in color; I suspected that I’d been pulling up too soon on my roux, fearful of burning them.
I wanted to see it done right, from scratch.
It’s not difficult, Zach reassured me. If you’ve got your ratio right, it’s simply a matter of patience and confidence.
“If you think you’ve gone too far, go a little further,” he encouraged.
A quart and a half of oil went into one of the giant kettles, set over a burner so powerful it threatened to scorch the hairs off the legs of anyone standing too close to the pot. The burner pulled from two propane tanks at once, a setup that was necessary because the draw of gas from the burner was so rapid that a single tank would be at risk of freezing over, even on a pleasantly warm morning like this.
Once the oil had warmed, 3-3/4 pounds of flour went in, and Zach handed me my primary tool for the morning—a long-handled wooden paddle with two holes in it and an end he’d rounded off on a jigsaw.
I stirred the roux, and kept stirring—and stirring, and stirring, and stirring.
After a few minutes of constant stirring, my Apple Watch registered it as a workout, which was nice; I no longer felt judged by the few stray joggers getting in their morning runs around campus. We’re all exercising here, right?
We’re not so different, you and I.
The roux bubbled and thickened; after about 20 minutes, it began to take on its first color, going from nearly-white to blonde, then sandy brown.
By 30 minutes, it was the color of peanut butter.
“We want the color of a Hershey’s chocolate bar,” Zach noted.
Getting to that point took about 40 minutes, and around 7:30am, the Trinity went in. Bags of onion, celery and bell pepper were dumped into the roux, an addition that darkened the mixture even more. Another 15 minutes of stirring. Chopped andouille sausage followed, along with spices and several gallons of chicken broth. The mixture was brought to a boil, then lowered to a bubbling simmer.
The gumbo could rest for the moment. We couldn’t.
In the second pot, we’d be making sauce piquant, a tomato-based stew that—after I expressed unfamiliarity with it—Zach (possibly over-)simplified for me as “Cajun chili”. Chunks of pork shoulder were browned in batches and reserved, and a second was roux started, this one rice flour-based so as to have a gluten-free option for tailgaters.
More stirring, more Trinity, more broth, then quarts of chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce and spices went in, along with the browned pork.
Chicken thighs go into the gumbo.
Time to start the étouffée.
A wide, shallow rondeau went up on a camp stove, and a third roux—this one butter-based, as opposed to the oil- and pork-fat based prior two—was started. More Trinity, more spices, and several bags of crawfish tail meat went in, followed by more stock.
A big pot of rice went on the camp stove.
By now, the group around the tents has grown from the pre-dawn skeleton crew to a dozen or so. Billy—another longtime internet friend I was getting to meet for the first time this weekend—arrived with the makings for Bloody Marys and a foil tray of deep-fried chunks of pork belly.
By 10:00am, other tailgates had awoken around us. A DJ set up nearby, and started blasting music. Tents popped up, flags were flying, children running around. Drinks were poured, including my contribution for the day, a cocktail scaled up to several gallons. A game of washers began. Old friends reconnected, new friends were made. More than a dozen people that I’ve known for ages only through their Twitter handles became real, flesh-and-blood people, the magic of the internet at its best.
Just before noon, a call went out, and our messy, sprawling party quickly reorganized itself into an orderly food line. Steaming servings of gumbo, sauce piquant and étouffée were ladled over bowls of rice, and more drinks were poured. There was a sense of joy in the air, and it wasn’t just the picture-perfect sunny fall afternoon we’d been blessed with, nor simply anticipation for the game ahead, one that would give the suddenly-resurgent Tigers a chance to seize the division lead.
It was the joy of having made something from scratch.
As a sports fan, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of pain at the ceaseless corporatization of the games we love.
College sports might have started out as amateur competitions on campus greens or cow pastures, but they’re a multi-billion dollar business these days, and the pull to professionalize the experience—to polish down all the rough edges, squeeze out all the oddities, and make all the pieces match—is relentless. A sport becomes a brand, and there’s progressively less and less room for the fan to be anything but a passive spectator: a customer paying for an experience that doesn’t ask for anything of them but their money.
This is true both inside and out of the stadium.
Some schools—LSU included, though they’re hardly alone in this—have started to offer pre-fabricated, turn-key tailgates in a handful of locations. Want to have a gameday experience without all the hassle and effort? Just pay a comfortable four-to-five-figure sum, and you can show up at your leisure to find pre-assembled tents, catered food and multiple televisions and not have to clean a thing up afterward.
What I got to experience on Saturday was a world apart from that, though, and far more special. To borrow a line from the Southeastern Conference’s own polished marketing campaigns—it just means more.
In the span of some eight hours on a Saturday morning, an incredible experience was conjured out of thin air. It wasn’t officially sanctioned, and it wasn’t done for profit or personal gain. It was an experience made possible by people who care about a team and its traditions, people who just want to share the things they love with as many people as possible; people who appreciate just how fleeting and special a Saturday in the fall can be, and just how lucky one can be to find themself standing on a sunny patch of grass with a warm breeze rustling through the stately oaks and broad magnolias, the smell of good food wafting through the air and the sound of laughter ringing in their ears.
They know that Saturday is special, and even more so when you make it from scratch.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Huge thanks to everyone who showed me such hospitality this weekend in Louisiana. First and foremost, thank you to Zach Rau for the invite, and to PodKATT for showing me around the campus and around Louisiana. Thanks to Joey, Adam, Taylor and all the others involved with DVA Tailgating for letting me crash their party, and Billy for not drowning me in a pot of gumbo as he’d long threatened to. (With cause, I admit.)
It was a joy and a pleasure to meet many longtime internet friends (some of whom read this newsletter!) including Alli, Kevin, Mike, Eric, Greg, Boaty, Specter, Claire, Matt, Alexandra, Em, Brian, and more.
Special shout-out to my dude Jay Arnold—who writes the always-a-delight newsletter Barbecue, Bets and Beats—for making the trip in from Houston on late notice. Jay did his own write-up of the experience for Apollo Media, and you should check that out, too.
And now, more photos that I couldn’t fit in line:
The Tigers did in fact win, rallying from a 17-3 second quarter deficit to a resounding statement of a 45-20 win. This puts them in first place in the SEC West as of this writing, a position they can hold as long as they beat Alabama in two weeks, never an easy task.
With this experience coming almost exactly three months after the Lou Oyster Cult collaboration/restaurant pop-up in July, I now firmly believe I need to be involved in a Big Event on a quarterly basis. Brainstorming for January already.
OK, Since ACB didn't want to toot his own horn here, I will - Basically everyone who tried the Sea Serpent raved about it, and the entire Gatorade cooler of it that he mixed up was gone by the time we were tearing down. It was delicious and dangerous, about the color of a good coffee liqueur, heading towards too sweet but pulling up just before the line, and people LOVED it.