Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Bonfires on the River

           The French, Spanish, German, Haitian, West African, Caribbean, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups that have settled Louisiana in the past three hundred plus years have fused together to create a culture unique to Louisiana. In honor of the Christmas season, let's talk about a Louisiana tradition: Christmas Eve bonfires. 


             On Christmas Eve, and more generally in the month of December, residents of Louisiana who live along the Mississippi river, especially between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, construct bonfires on the earthen levees that surround the river. Most of the time, the levees protect the surrounding homes from flood waters. These areas of high ground also make them prime locations for the construction of bonfires. Tradition holds that the bonfires are intended to help Santa Claus—or as the Cajuns call him Papa Noel, because of course the Cajuns have their own name—find his way to the homes of residents of Southern Louisiana. Louisianans construct wooden pyramid like structures, with smaller support logs that give them the appearance of fences. This is the typical appearance for one of these structures, but over the years people have become more artistic in their creations. Many pay homage to Louisiana’s culture, taking the shape of famous plantation homes, paddleboats, or even the ubiquitous crawfish. St. James Parish, located about 30-40 miles upriver from New Orleans, has the heaviest concentration of bonfires, especially in the towns of Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina. Lutcher even hosts the annual Festival of the Bonfires at Lutcher Recreational Park where they feature live entertainment, food, local crafts, and of course, bonfires. 


            The origins of the Christmas Eve bonfires are not entirely clear. French and German immigrants settled in St. James Parish in the early 18th century. One theory holds that these settlers continued European traditions of holding bonfires on or around the winter and summer solstices after they established themselves in Louisiana. These original pagan practices were incorporated into Christian beliefs as a way of smoothing the way for conversion. The historical record, however, does not support the claim of a widespread practice of bonfires until the 1920s and 1930s. Groups of young men formed bonfire clubs, where they cut down trees, stripped them of their branches, and dragged them to the levees. After constructing the pyramid-like structures, people filled with rubber tires and other flammable materials. After World War 2, the bonfires grew in popularity due to the development of St. James and the surrounding river parishes. And in a rare victory for environmentalism in Louisiana, local governments banned the burning of rubber tires and other toxins—recognizing that they were bad for people’s health. Now these events serve as important cultural and communal events. As with many of Louisiana’s great traditions, they provide an opportunity to listen to music, eat delicious food, and for people to come together as a community and celebrate the holiday season.  



            The tradition of Christmas Eve bonfires reflects the unique cultural forces that have shaped Louisiana’s colorful history.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Movies Set In New Orleans and Louisiana

Photograph from the first film, Dupont, shot in New Orleans 

           From the earliest beginnings of the movie industry, filmmakers have long flocked to New Orleans and Louisiana. The first film shot in the city was in 1898 and it was called Dupont. The film was about a torpedo boat. By the 1950s, New Orleans became a popular location for movie shoots, due to the number of stories set in the Crescent City and Louisiana’s unique blend of geography, architecture, and accessibility. Where else can you film in a swamp one day, a 19thcentury plantation house, and an above ground cemetery all just miles apart? 

            Presently, the state of Louisiana offers tax incentives to productions to film in New Orleans. As a result, movies ranging from White House Down to 12 Years a Slave to Easy Rider have all been shot in Louisiana. There's also a steady stream of TV shows like NCIS: New Orleans and American Horror Story. With all this in mind, let’s turn to some famous movies set in New Orleans or Louisiana that are worth your time. 

Jezebel (1938): Let’s start with an old Hollywood classic. This is a movie very much of its time—Lost Cause nostalgia in the depictions of slavery for instance—and it was a Hollywood effort to tell a Jane Austen type story. Set in 1852, a New Orleans belle named Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is engaged to a banker named Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda). She’s strong-willed and vain and he’s a noble doctor. She humiliates him, he humiliates her, there’s a duel where some poor sap gets killed and then they all end up quarantined on an island with yellow fever. The film is gorgeous to look at, but it's best not to think about the plot too much. 



A Streetcar Named Desire (1951): With an all-star cast featuring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh and an all-time great director, Elia Kazan, A Streetcar Named Desire is set in New Orleans and revolves around the delusions of faded southern dame, Blanche DuBois, and her brutish brother-in-law Stanley. This version of the Tennessee Williams play is worth a watch, even if you’ve seen the play. The Simpsons famously satirized the play and city in a classic early season episode, drawing the ire of some residents. 

Easy Rider (1969): A film about an LSD trip that’s also structured like an LSD trip. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda are a pair of bikers on a road trip where they sell drugs, make money, and get high. Along the way, they head to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The film is a great look at the city in the late 1960s. 

The Big Easy (1986): A classic New Orleans story about the city’s legendary corruption. Ellen Barkin plays a district attorney investigating a murder involving a bunch of crooked cops. Only the problem is police counterpart in the film, played by Dennis Quaid, is also crooked as hell. The NOPD does a couple things really well: crowd control and corruption. 


12 Years a Slave (2013): Based on the true account of Solomon Northup, a free African-American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, the film is unsparing in its depictions of American slavery. It is a useful corrective to films like Jezebel and Gone with the Wind. Northup eventually regains his freedom, but not before witnessing a wide range of the horrors. It also has Brad Pitt!  

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table (2016): A wonderful documentary about the matriarch of the famous Brennan restaurant family in New Orleans. Ella Brennan passed away earlier this year, but if you’ve ever been to Commander’s Palace or any of the other Brennan family restaurants (there’s a whole bunch of them) and enjoyed the hospitality, that’s because of Ella Brennan. A powerful figure who led her family’s restaurant group after the death of her older brother, she’s also the creator of the dessert classic Bananas Foster. Under her guidance, chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse became culinary superstars. Even today, her influence continues to reverberate in the New Orleans culinary landscape. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Saints TV Bingo

            If you watch the Saints on television long enough, patterns start to appear. Television announcers repeat the same storylines and use the same footage over and over again. Sometimes it’s fun. Mostly though, it’s just plain lazy and annoying. In honor of this, we’ve created a game of Saints TV Bingo for you to enjoy the next time the Saints are on TV. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Jungle Primary


            Thanks to its French, Spanish, and American heritage, Louisiana has some unique traditions. We’ve got gumbo and jambalaya. We’ve got Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. We’ve got the Napoleonic Code and parishes instead of counties. And when it comes to politics, Louisiana couldn’t just be like any other state. No, we have our own system of electing local, state, and federal officials that is different from anywhere else in the United States. 

            Louisiana uses a jungle primary system for its elected officials. A jungle primary system is where all the candidates for office appear on the same ballot regardless of what party they belong to. Then on election day, if no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the top two candidates participate in a run-off election about a month later. Confused? Let’s take a historical example. 

            Below is a chart of all the votes from the jungle primary for the 2015 Governor's race. 

Party
Candidate
Votes
Percentage 
Democratic
John Bel Edwards
444,517
39.89%
Republican
David Vitter
256,300
23.00%
Republican
Scott Angelle
214,982
19.29%
Republican
Jay Dardenne
166,656
14.96%
Democratic
Cary Deaton
11,763
1.06%
Democratic
S.L. Simpson
7,420
0.67%
Independent
Beryl Billiot
5,694
0.51%
Independent
Jeremy Odom
4,756
0.43%
Independent
Eric Orgeron
2,248
0.20%

            So there were a total of nine candidates in the 2015 governor’s race with three Democratic candidates, three independents, and three Republicans. Democrat John Bel Edwards garnered the most votes, but did not receive more than 50%, sparking a run-off between Edwards and Republican David Vitter. In the run-off, Edwards defeated Vitter, 56.1% to 43.9%. 

            The jungle primary has some interesting consequences. If we look at the vote totals from the first round of voting by party, we see that Republican candidates accounted for 57.25% of the vote while the Democrats garnered only 41.62% of all ballots cast. Despite a clear majority of Louisiana voters preferring a Republican candidate, none was elected governor. In the runoff, the percentage of votes won by each party flipped, with the Democrat Edwards winning a clear majority. 

Louisiana’s system became state law in the 1970s at the behest of Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards. Edwards, a governor who would be beset by scandal and later serve time in prison, wanted to ward off a primary challenge so he pushed for this jungle primary system. By throwing all of the candidates into one pool, he diluted the threat of any one challenger defeating him. 

Former Governor Edwin Edwards

The jungle primary has system has its clear advantages and disadvantages. It allows voters to express a preference for a particular candidate rather than a particular political party. This is what happened in the Louisiana governor’s race. Many Republican voters wanted a Republican governor but did not want to support Vitter, the leading candidate. So they voted for Angelle or Dardenne instead. In the runoff, many of those same voters, however, did not want to vote for Vitter, so they switched to Edwards. If the state had a traditional primary system where one Democrat faced off against one Republican perhaps the result would have been different. Perhaps the Angelle and Dardenne would have combined forces to defeat Vitter or perhaps Vitter may have aligned himself with one of them to ward off the third? 

The run-off has serious disadvantages for federal elected officials. Congressmen and senators elected in run-off elections enter Congress behind their colleagues in terms of seniority. In Congress, positions on key committees are apportioned according to seniority—how long an official has been in elected office. So elected officials who win on election day in November get better positions than those elected in a run-off in December. Former Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu often complained about this as it cost her seniority in the Senate. This seniority can have a real impact on the state. Senators and congressmen use their committee assignments to look after the interest of their constituents and direct federal monies to their districts. 

As a result, the state is reportedly considering a switch back to the traditional primary system. Since the legislature does not meet again until April 2019, any change would affect the 2020 elections at the earliest. So for the 2019 governor’s race, incumbent John Bel Edwards will have to navigate a field of multiple candidates in order to win reelection. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Sean Payton vs. A Fire Alarm

The face of a man who fought a fire alarm and won 

            On Sunday, the New Orleans Saints destroyed the Cincinnati Bengals, 51-14. Quarterback Drew Brees completed 22 of 25 passes for 265 yards and 3 TDs. Mark Ingram ran 13 times for 104 yards, averaging a ridiculous 8 yards per carry. Alvin Kamara had over 100 yards rushing and receiving with two touchdowns. Wide receiver Michael Thomas caught two more TD passes. By the end of the game, Saints radio announcers Zach Strief and Deuce McAllister were openly rooting for the game to end as quickly as possible so McAllister could get out of the cold. The New Orleans defense intercepted two passes from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. By halftime, the Saints had a 35-7 lead a 99.6% win probability. The game was an impressive performance by a New Orleans team with its sights clearly set on a division title and the playoffs. 

            But the Saints on-field destruction wasn’t the only big storyline coming out of the game. Before the game, head coach Sean Payton engaged in a little destruction of his own. His target wasn’t the Bengals defense, but rather a pesky fire alarm.

            Before the game started, a fire alarm sounded throughout the stadium. After about 15 minutes, Payton was fed up. It was clear that the team was not in danger nor was the stadium burning down. Worried that the alarm was hurting his team’s focus for the upcoming game, Payton took matters into his own hands, laying waste to the alarm situated in the middle of the Saints locker room. Take a look at the damage below.


            So we have a couple of questions. Did he damage it with his hands? Because that would be the story of the game. Did he use a hammer? What about one of those clunky Microsoft Surface tablets? How did his players react when their head coach destroyed a fire alarm? Did he just come out of his office, calmly destroy it and go back in? He did talk to anyone about whether this was a good idea? He did ask for the alarm to be turned off?

            In his post-game press conference, Payton claimed that he did not destroy the alarm, calling such claims “sensationalist.” Instead he simply explained that “I just needed the noise to stop.” Payton offered to pay for the cost of repairing the broken alarm. The Bengals issued a milquetoast response saying “We are aware of this situation and have been in touch with the authorities, but have nothing more on it at this time.” It’s not clear if anything will happen to Payton for his wanton destruction of lifesaving fire equipment. But there seems to be almost nothing on or off the field that can stop the Saints this season. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Saints Half-Season Check-In

Will he finally win MVP? 
 
          With the New Orleans Saints 45-35 victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, the Saints’ record is now 7-1 and they are halfway through their season. As a result, we thought it would be a good time to see how their season is going so far and what we can look forward to in the second half. 

            Let’s start with the positives. First with their 7-1 record, New Orleans sits atop the NFC South, a game up on the 6-2 Carolina Panthers. Thanks to their victory over the Rams, the Saints now hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Los Angeles. Currently the Rams and Saints sit atop on the NFC playoff standings. The playoffs may be a ways off, but the victory over the Rams could mean the difference between playing the NFC championship game in New Orleans as opposed to Los Angeles. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Saints are the fourth best team in the NFL behind only the Rams, Chiefs, and Patriots. They have a 95.9% chance to make the playoffs, a 69.6% chance to win their division, and a 11.8% chance to win the Super Bowl. In other words, the Saints are in a great position. 

            Once again, Drew Brees and Sean Payton have the New Orleans offense humming along. Somewhat surprisingly the Saints have the fewest drives on offense of any team in the NFL—some of that is due to the bye week, but that’s not all of it—but they are first in points per drive and third in yards per drive. They also lead the league in time of procession per drive. In other words, when they get the ball, they usually drive down the field and score points. They also do not turn the ball over. Drew Brees has thrown 18 touchdowns to only one interception. His INT% is second in the NFL behind only Aaron Rodgers. Michael Thomas has become a superstar wide receiver right before our eyes. In eight games this season, he has caught 70 of the 79 passes thrown to him for 880 yards. He’s averaging 111 yards per game and his 5 touchdowns this year have already matched his season total from 2017. Running back Alvin Kamara meanwhile has 917 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns in only 12 games. 



            The Saints special teams have also quietly been a key a contributor to the Saints hot start. Will Lutz has brought stability to the kicker position after years of New Orleans cycling through two or so mediocre kickers per year. The kickoff and punt teams have also been especially strong. The Saints lead the NFL in starting field position for their offensive drives. They also are fourth in starting field position for their opponents. Now they have also benefitted some from good luck. Football Outsiders charts a metric called Hidden Points that includes factors outside a team’s control like opposing field goals, kickoff and punt distances and have gained an estimated 14.8 points. 

            Despite the strong start, there are some warning signs on the horizon. First, the Carolina Panthers are 6-2 and only a game behind the Saints. The two teams have yet to play this season and those matchups will go a long way towards determining whether New Orleans will win the NFC South again. Second, according to Football Outsiders as of last week, the Saints have played the easiest schedule in the league so far. Their remaining schedule—which included the Rams—ranks as the 10th hardest going forward. Beating the Rams helps, but New Orleans has a lot of tough games ahead.


            Most importantly, the Saints defense has significantly regressed from last season. They rank 29th in Football Outsiders DVOA. They are 28th in opponent’s yards per drive and points per drive. They are 30th in points allowed per drive and red zone points allowed and 31st in 3 and Outs. While they’ve only faced 70 opponent drives, the second fewest in the league, the New Orleans defense is giving away points on nearly every drive. The Saints have had a strong run defense—2nd in DVOA—but their pass defense, the team’s strength last year, has been atrocious—29th in DVOA. In a league where passing numbers are up across the board and where the Saints have invested significant draft capital—Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, and the newly acquired Eli Apple—the Saints had better fix their pass defense problems quickly. Because if the offense can’t keep up its pace, the defense will have a hard time holding their opponents down. 

            Halfway through the Saints season and things have gone as well as fans could have hoped. The question is, can the offense and special teams continue to carry New Orleans or will a tougher schedule and below average defense drag down their Super Bowl hopes? The next eight games will prove the answer. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

MLB Pitchers from Louisiana



          Last week, we began our look at Major League Baseball players from Louisiana. We started by looking at hitters and we’re going to conclude our examination this week by looking at pitchers. Instead of just listing some cool facts about the players, we’re going to do things a little differently this week. We’re going to build a pitching staff consisting of Louisiana pitchers--five starters and three relievers. Let's get to it.  

The Starting Rotation 

Throws
Name
W
L
ERA
K%
WAR
Hometown
RHP
Ted Lyons
260
230
3.67
6%
67.6
Lake Charles
LHP
Andy Pettitte 
256
153
3.85
17.4%
60.7
Baton Rouge
LHP
Chuck Finley
200
173
3.85
19.1%
58.5
Monroe
LHP
Ron Guidry
170
91
3.29
18.2%
48.2
Lafayette
LHP
Vida Blue
209
161
3.27
15.7%
45.2
Mansfield

            At the top of our all-Louisiana rotation we have Ted “Sunday Teddy” Lyons. Born in 1900 in Lake Charles, Lyons played his entire 21 year career for the Chicago White Sox of the American League. Lyons is the White Sox career leader in wins and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955. 

            Throughout his career with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros, Andy Pettitte won five World Series titles with the Yankees and is the MLB all-time career leader in postseason wins with 19. He made three All-Star teams and had his number 46 retired by New York in 2015. In 2008, Pettitte admitted to using HGH, a performance enhancing drug, after being named in the Mitchell Report, MLB’s investigation into steroid use in baseball. 

            A native of Monroe, Chuck Finley spent the bulk of his career pitching for the then-California Angels. A powerful left-handed starter, Finley played his college baseball at Louisiana Tech in Ruston and then at Northeast Louisiana University (now UL-Monroe). The Angels drafted him in the first round of the 1985 amateur draft. Throughout his lengthy career, Finley won 200 games, struck out 2,610 hitters, and is the Angels career leader in wins, innings pitched, and games started. 

Ron Guidry on the mound 

            Louisiana seems to be particularly adept at developing left-handed starters. Ron Guidry, like Pettitte, pitched the bulk of his career for the New York Yankees. Nicknamed “Louisiana Lightning” Guidry attended UL-Lafayette and was drafted by the Yankees in 1971. Guidry won the American League Cy Young Award in 1978 as he anchored a Yankees pitching staff that won its second consecutive World Series. Guidry pitched for the Yankees until he retired in 1985 and had a brief run as the Yankees pitching coach from 2006-2007. 

            Rounding out the rotation is one of baseball’s best players—at least by name—Vida Blue. The Mansfield, Louisiana native played high school football and baseball. During his senior season he threw for 3,400 yards and 35 touchdowns. He also added another 1,400 yards on the ground. As a pitcher, Blue threw a no-hitter and struck out every batter he faced in a 7 inning game. He signed a deal with Oakland A’s after completing high school. In 1971, Blue accomplished the rare feat of winning both the AL Cy Young Award—given to the best pitcher—and the AL Most Valuable Player award. During his career with the A’s, Blue won three World Series and had a contentious relationship with A’s owner Charlie Finley, who routinely got in contract disputes with his players and even sued the commissioner of baseball. 

Relievers 

Throws
Name
Saves
ERA
K% 
WAR
Hometown
RHP
Lee Smith
478
3.03
23.2%
29.4
Jamestown
RHP
Jonathan Papelbon
368
2.44
27.5%
23.5
Baton Rouge
LHP
B.J. Ryan
117
3.37
27.5%
11.5
Bossier City

            Lee Smith had a 17 year career where he played for eight teams. He grew up in Jamestown, a small town in North Louisiana, and the Cubs drafted him in 1975. The six foot six inch, 265 pound pitcher was an intimidating presence on the mound as he routinely threw his fastball at 95 miles per hour. He played on 7 All-Star teams, won the Rolaids Relief Man Award three times, and led the league in saves four times. From 1993-2006, Smith was the all-time leader in saves. 

Papelbon liked to yell at people--umpires included
            Jonathan Papelbon, a Baton Rouge native, was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 4thround of the 2003 draft. He reached the majors in 2005 and played for the Red Sox until 2011. During his time in Boston, Papelbon paired a dominant fastball and off-speed pitch to become an effective closer. He also developed a reputation as a jerk. After winning the World Series in 2007, he gave the World Series clinching ball to his dog—who ate it. Later in his career, he intentionally threw at hitters and got into fights with his teammates in the dugout. 

            B.J. Ryan began his career as a left-handed specialist for the Cincinnati Reds. He initially struggled against right-handed hitters relegating him to a short outings against left-handed batters. Over his career, Ryan gained better control over his pitches. Relying on a slider and fastball and a three-quarters slot delivery, Ryan pieced together a string of dominant seasons out of the bullpen. In his ten year career, Ryan pitched for the Reds, Baltimore Orioles, and Toronto Blue Jays.