Biloxi’s Ethnic Shrimping Communities

Biloxi's Ethnic Shrimping Ccmmunities

After another line-out-the-door lunchtime rush of Hurricane Katrina relief workers at Le Bakery Café, her little bakery and Vietnamese po-boy shop, Sue Nguyen turned to me and said, “I wish you could’ve seen Biloxi before.”

By “before,” of course, she meant before the storm. But the history and the stories of this place run far deeper than the piles of rubble left by a hurricane. Before Biloxi was known as a city fighting to recover from a natural disaster, before it was known as a casino playland, Biloxi proudly wore its crown of Seafood Capital of the World, a place of communities built on shrimp nets and oyster drudgers.

Like any place where hard work could yield fortune, Biloxi’s seafood industry attracted immigrant labor – first Polish by way of Baltimore, then Croatians and Cajuns, and more recently, Vietnamese. Each of these communities came for work on the water and in the factories. Wanting better for their children, they laid down roots and graduated into the middle and professional classes. Each made their cultural and culinary imprints on Biloxi. And each has struggled, in different ways, with the change brought on by newcomers, by a shifting seafood market, by Biloxi’s transition to a casino economy, and by Hurricane Katrina.

Collected here are some of the stories the SFA had the privilege of gathering: Corky Hire talking about what it was like shrimping half a century ago. Richard Gollott on how he brought the first Vietnamese family to town. Georgo Trojanovich joking about being “the only real Croatian in Biloxi.” Peter Nguyen sharing how, after getting out of shrimping, he’s trying to help people who are still in the game. Sammy Montiforte talking about how, with a sunken boat, he still dreams of getting back on the water. Listen to them. Or, for another way to get a sense of Biloxi, drive into town for the crawfish boil at Leroy Duvall’s French Club, say hello to FoFo Gilich while buying holiday pastries from the Slavonian Lodge, or go to Todd Rosetti’s Quality Poultry and Seafood and have a po-boy made from shrimp Frank Parker might have caught, stuffed into bread Sue Nguyen baked.


Underwriting for this project was provided by Louisiana Foods: Global Seafood Source

Interviews

Slavic Benevolent Assoc. - Fo-Fo Gilich - Biloxi Shrimping

Andrew “Fo-Fo” Gilich

For over a hundred years in Biloxi, immigrants have come to work in the seafood industry, fueled by the notion that their sacrifices and hard labor will bear easier lives for their children. Fo-Fo is two generations removed from people who came to America from Croatia, people who struggled and eventually found their careers in seafood canning. Even if he did catch hot shrimp cans off assembly lines as a boy, Fo-Fo today is a software developer and an entrepreneur (and a would-be Mayor of Biloxi, falling a few hundred votes shy in 2001), representing the forward-looking vision of his grandparents.

biloxi_shrimping_corky_hire_shrimper

Corky Hire

Corky, the child of immigrants himself, grew up during a time when all his neighbors on land grew grapes for their own wine, when he was hauling in shrimp nets by hand, when ice for the shrimp was in short enough supply that the canneries sent out their own boats to unload fishermen’s catch while still at sea. He retired from shrimping in 1955, before the Hurricanes Camille and Katrina, before government-mandated holes in the shrimp nets, before casinos bought up the waterfront, before shrimp importation all combined to threaten the state of the industry as it stands today. His work back then was hard, Corky says, but “there wasn’t nothing really hard.”

biloxi_shrimping_frank_parker_commercial_fisherman

Frank Parker

Even in a town like Biloxi, it’s not often someone can claim seven generations of fishing heritage. The line in Frank Parker’s family may have stopped at six when his parents pushed him to go to college and consider other lines of work, but the years of growing up playing on the dock had him pretty well convinced he was going to go back out onto the Gulf. So at 24 years old, 12 credits shy of graduating, Frank decided to listen to the sirens and bought himself a boat. The funny thing, though, is that his parents listened to them too. His father retired from furniture refinishing to be his deckhand, and his mother got on the boat to do the support work, and to referee when they butt heads.

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George Trojanovich

A distant relative of a local restaurateur, Georgo came as a teenager to escape Tito’s Communist regime, working as a dishwasher at Mary Mahoney’s restaurant. While feeling taken in by friends and the community, he struggled to learn the language, to acclimate to the food, but always knew that going home was not an option. He bought a house from money he’d saved from three years of constant work, learned to cook from a gifted mentor, rose to be the Chef of Mary Mahoney’s to find himself, 20 years later, grilling a snapper for Ronald Reagan. Not bad work, you’d think, for a boy who’d never seen a shrimp until the age of 16.

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Leroy Duvall

When Leroy Duvall refers to himself as “one of the younger people,” it’s despite his 64 years, but it’s without a trace of irony. Part of it is that he is the President of the Fleur de Lis Society, a club half the size of what it once was because its membership is slowly passing from old age. And part of it is that, after 30 years of shrimping on the Gulf, his body still feels young.

NAVASA - Outreach Coordinator - Peter Nguyen - Biloxi Shrimping

Peter Nguyen

Peter went to school and helped his father on the boat, until he turned 18 and quit his schooling to help full time. For years, the family did well enough for Peter to support his own family. He took out loans and bought his own boat, a massive one, equipped for 6-week trips away from the family he was working to support. He started having reservations, but whatever choices he might have made, Katrina and the tightening economics of the domestic shrimp trade chose for him. Peter sold his boat and works now assisting other fishermen, translating for them, researching better technologies and methods for their businesses, but even as he sees certain fishermen surviving, he doesn’t see their children following them in the industry. “It’s kind of late to start now,” he admits.

Golden Gulf Coast Packing Company - Richard Gollot - Biloxi Shrimping

Richard Gollot

After 40 years in the business, Mr. Richard is accustomed to change. He’s watched the collapse of the local oyster industry, he’s watched communities come and go. But as he sees the shrinking of the shrimp business, he is committed to advocating for his industry, for the livelihood of his competitors and the families he helped bring to Biloxi.

Commercial Fisherman - Sammy Montiforte - Biloxi Shrimping

Sammy Montiforte

Sammy Montiforte literally owes his life to the seafood industry: his parents met when his father arrived to unload his catch in Biloxi. And so Sammy came to grow up in his grandfather’s factory, sneaking off with snacks of crab claws. And so Sammy came to grow up watching his father build boats in their backyard, learning enough to build his own after quitting school and dedicating himself to working the Gulf, shrimping in the summers and oystering through the winters. It was, as Sammy says, “Just what you did around here.”

Le Bakery - Sue Nguyen - Biloxi Shrimping

Sue Nguyen

Before the storm, though, Sue’s shop was already playing that role. Born in San Diego to Vietnamese immigrant parents, she moved to Biloxi as a girl, growing up in kitchens – her family’s and the neighbors’, where she learned to make eggrolls and gumbos. Le Bakery is an expression of Sue’s creative and personal vision, of Vietnamese and Southern sensibilities. It’s a place where she has learned to cook and serve her mother’s recipes and a place where, connecting with her customers every day, she feels the strength of her roots in Biloxi.

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Todd Rosetti

Todd Rosetti didn’t actually start his career at the University of Southern Mississippi thinking he would run the seafood wholesaling business that’s been in his family for over 50 years. He was following in his mother’s nursing footsteps until conversations with his ailing father about the impending arrival of the casinos convinced him of the opportunity that would afford. He switched his major to marketing, and, beginning with the day after his graduation in 1993, he’s been working at Quality six days a week ever since.