On the Cajun Coast, a chef grapples with threats to a seafood tradition

NEW ORLEANS — Days before Hurricane Ida hit last August, Maxine and Lanny Martin bought 150 pounds of shrimp in Chauvin, the Louisiana coastal town where they live. The shrimp came from fishermen in Bayou Petit Caillou, which is a few blocks from the house where the Martins raised six children, including New Orleans chef and cookbook author Melissa Martin.

That seafood stash is one of the reasons the Martins initially resisted their daughter’s pleas to evacuate ahead of the storm, which devastated communities on Louisiana’s southeast coast, including Chauvin. .

“I wasn’t worried about my house,” said Melissa Martin, which her mother later told her. “I was worried about my shrimp.”

The coexistence of abundance and vulnerability shapes lives and priorities in Chauvin and elsewhere on Louisiana’s Cajun Coast south of New Orleans. The region, the heart of the state’s commercial fishing industry, has lost land to climate change, which is also making storms wetter and more powerful. The area inspired Ms. Martin’s restaurant, the Mosquito Supper Club, and her 2020 cookbook of the same name.

Ida’s damage to the coast provided the impetus for a fundraising effort, launched on a website Ms. Martin built on the passenger seat of her car, which raised more than $765,000 to help residents of the coast still hit by storms, many of which a portion distributed in cash in partnership with the Helio Foundation, an association based in Houma. “At first, no one could use credit cards for anything,” she said. “I was getting hundreds of DMs and emails from people asking for money.”

The campaign continues to invest in projects, including repairing fishing boats, and amplifying the message of its book: Life is perilous for people in coastal towns like Chauvin, and for the rich food culture that lives there. blooms.

Land on the Louisiana coast, which is the heart of the state’s energy activities, is disappearing at an alarming rate. Oil exploration and fossil fuel pollution – a direct cause of global warming that drives sea level rise – is also accelerating coastal erosion that eats away wetlands that are crucial habitat for fish and other fish. wild animals.

Ms Martin, 44, is candid about the toll this environmental crisis has already taken. The recipes she showcases in her book, subtitled “Cajun Recipes from a Vanishing Bayou,” and in her restaurant represent a culture whose days she believes are numbered. And the disappearance of an area that serves as a storm buffer for densely populated areas to the north, and which contains billions of dollars in energy infrastructure, will be felt everywhere.

“When this land disappears, it takes with it part of our nation’s security and food supply, as well as a long legacy of culture and tradition,” she writes in her book. “Water is our lifeline and our dark shadow.”

When Mrs. Martin and her father returned to Chauvin days after Ida landed, the prawns they discovered still frozen in the family’s tightly sealed freezer were the only welcome sight for miles around.

“There were houses in the bayou,” she said. “The buildings had just disappeared.”

Ms. Martin has been to the coast dozens of times since Ida. During those trips, she saw the damage from one of the most powerful storms to hit Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, compounded in communities that had yet to recover from 2020, when a record number of tropical storms and hurricanes hit the state.

“Right now, it doesn’t seem sustainable there,” she said, sitting on the veranda of the Mosquito Supper Club in October, for the first of several interviews.

The restaurant, which began in 2014 as a series of Cajun-themed parties and pop-ups, has gradually gained fame for its seafood-focused cuisine and family hospitality – okra is brought at the table in pots, with potato salad, for guests to help themselves to. The food is distinct from the spicier, sausage-based and often hybrid Cajun cuisine common in New Orleans, whose roots go mostly to the interior prairies around Lafayette.

By the time her cookbook was released in the spring of 2020, shortly after the pandemic hit, Ms. Martin had built a loyal following. (Musician and actress Solange Knowles, an early fan, hired Ms. Martin to cook for her wedding.)

Last fall, the ripple effects of Hurricane Ida were still evident in seafood offerings at New Orleans restaurants. East Coast oysters and farmed striped bass were remarkably common. The Gulf of Mexico blue crab was exceptionally rare; it’s still expensive.

While local seafood is still fundamental and widely available in South Louisiana restaurants, species that were once ubiquitous now become steadily scarcer at some point in the year, and not just after hurricanes.

In 2019, heavy rains and snowfall rushed down the Mississippi River from the Midwest, flooding the Louisiana coast with fresh water and killing millions of oysters. Land loss and flood control projects have further altered the salinity of many coastal lakes, bays and bayous, forcing fishermen to travel farther for a catch whose dockside prices, depressed in part by competition from imports , may not cover expenses.

These were among the challenges Ngoc Tran was navigating when Ida razed the headquarters of St. Vincent Seafood Company, which she and her husband, Trung, run on Bayou Lafourche in Golden Meadow, about 40 miles east of Chauvinist. The company’s five shrimp boats were rendered inoperable by storm damage.

In November, the buzz of welders echoed around the rubble-strewn slab where Ms Tran, 39, is trying to restore St. Vincent. Asked where one of her boats was, she pointed across the bayou to the marsh where she had landed on her side. Today, this boat is still there and Saint-Vincent has not yet been rebuilt.

“Prices are so high, everyone is still working on fixing houses,” Ms Tran said. “And we still don’t have electricity.”

Ms. Tran cannot imagine passing the business on to her children. “We don’t want our children to go through this,” she said.

Young people’s reluctance to enter a tougher and less lucrative industry than it was in previous generations has left Louisiana with a vexing conundrum: While seafood remains plentiful – the state ranks still second only to Alaska in seafood production – the will and expertise to harvest it is dwindling.

The phenomenon, known locally as “fleet graying,” is compounded by storms like Ida and is reflected in the sharp drop in the volume of shrimp and oysters caught since 2019. A study recently released by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Louisiana State University estimates that the state’s $2.5 billion seafood industry has suffered nearly $580 million in losses over the past two hurricane seasons.

More than half of the losses are due to damage to infrastructure that may never be repaired. In November, Robert Collins, 62, third-generation owner of the Louisiana Dried Shrimp Company, gazed up at the sky from the ground of his waterfront facility in Grand Isle, one of the most vulnerable communities in the Louisiana coast. Ida had ripped off almost the entire roof.

“I’m not going to use my retirement savings to fix this problem,” he said. Last week, Mr Collins said his business was still closed and he was unsure whether it would ever reopen.

The future of the state’s seafood industry is invariably going to include newcomers with different expectations and fewer scars than those born into it. People like Scott Maurer.

Mr. Maurer, 45, fell in love with the oyster business after moving from Ohio to Louisiana to help rebuild homes after Katrina. Today, he farms premium oysters in cages in the shallow waters just off Grand Isle. He remains committed to his Louisiana Oyster Company, even though he lost his entire harvest to Ida.

“As long as I can come back to bankruptcy from time to time, I think I’m winning,” he said. “I can live on an island and work on the water.”

Ms. Martin, the New Orleans chef, has also pledged to start a business on her own terms. She has always viewed the Mosquito Supper Club as a work in progress with goals that deviate from those of most traditional restaurants. It started when her daughter was in her early teens, and it developed gradually, as her duties as a single mother diminished.

The restaurant moved to its current location, inside a Victorian cottage in the Uptown neighborhood, in 2016. Ms Martin first shared the space with other female entrepreneurs, including Christina Balzebre, who ran her Levee Baking Company as a pop-up in space. before opening in a permanent location in 2019.

Today, the Supper Club occupies the entire chalet, which Mrs. Martin has filled with antiques, handmade furniture and paintings by her brother Leslie, also a jazz pianist. The restaurant is currently open four nights a week for a common room (and two private) multi-course pre-set dinner.

Food is served family style in large platters, ceramic bowls or iron pots. A mid-January menu included the restaurant’s sweet potato cookies, raw oysters topped with ponzu and lime, and prawns in lemon butter, all paired with natural wines. About 90% of the recipes featured in the restaurant and in her book come from Mrs. Martin’s mother.

In a recent email, Ms. Martin described the current incarnation of Supper Club as a chapter of “an ever-evolving experience.” The goal is to create a sustainable business that allows him, among other things, to offer his employees respectable salaries and health insurance. The restaurant, she wrote, “just happens to have a Cajun history that drives it.” The menu now incorporates ideas from Serigne Mbaye, who started as chef in October.

Ms. Martin’s work is still inextricably linked to the disappearance of the bayou. Hurricane Ida, she said, “definitely changed the way we cook.”

The raw oysters and shrimp on the January menu both came from Alabama. And the chef has yet to find a reliable crab supplier to replace Higgins Seafood, which hasn’t reopened since Ida poured mud into its headquarters in Lafitte.

“Higgins wouldn’t just provide a premium product. They were delivering crab shells in Piggly Wiggly plastic bags,” she said. “It’s the kind of stuff I remember from my childhood.”

Ms. Martin also continues to visit her hometown. She was there last month, at her parents’ kitchen table, testing out a king cake recipe with her mother for her upcoming cookbook. She said she would come back even after the book was finished, “just to keep recording what’s going on.”

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