Down the Bayou

Down the bayou intro picture

The people of Bayou Lafourche and Grand Isle, Louisiana, live and work smack dab at the center of nature—an aerial view of the area shows more water than land, and Grand Isle is definitively the end of civilization, tapering off into the Gulf of Mexico. They also live at the heart of our country’s most expansive oilfield. Steel structures crisscross the horizon, helicopters hum overhead, and drawbridges lift to allow crew and supply boats an easy path down the bayou to service and stock rigs in the Gulf. To the outsider, this intermix of oil and wilderness appears odd. Even ugly. But from the perspective of the bayou Cajuns (their more landlocked kin, the prairie Cajuns, live around Lafayette), the oilfield and nature coexist in harmony, the financial gains from the former funding good times in the latter.

We set out, as usual, to talk with subjects who could help paint a picture of the area’s food culture. What we found was a set of people who necessarily walk a line between industry and nature. We found a phenomenal outdoor cook, Mark Callais, whose cooking career began on a supply boat and landed in the PR arm of a supply boat company. We found George and Donna Terrebonne, owners of the Seafood Shed, who as a young married couple owned a service station. We found Wayne and Donna Estay, former shrimp dock operators who now, in retirement, own interest in a crew boat business. And we found Chine Terrebonne, a third-generation shrimp net maker who compensates for the lagging shrimp business by making nets that dredge the Gulf floor for the oil industry’s trash.

We conducted these interviews six years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita wrecked the area, and roughly a year and a half after the deadly and devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill. These events are some of the worst natural and manmade disasters this country has endured to date. Timing being what it is, the interviews tend to dwell on the hurricanes and the oil spill. Many of the subjects’ livelihoods still hang in the balance, as shrimp, oyster, and crab catches are unusually low at the time of this writing, perhaps an after-effect of the oil spill and its cleanup. Fuel prices, ironically, continue to rise. But even in the future, once these most recent trials are mere memories, they will serve as metaphors for the hardships that people who live and work so close to the land and water—and the oil—perpetually face.

Fortunately, no amount of adversity can keep these interviewees from a good plate of seafood. Specialties of the region include spaghetti étouffée (also known as smothered spaghetti or fisherman’s spaghetti), crab patties, boiled crawfish, seafood gumbo, fried catfish, and roasted duck (poule d’eau, or coot, is the favorite). Don’t believe that duck counts as seafood? Ha! Tell that to a bayou Cajun. Gumbo is often roux-less. Onions are browned to a nice shade of black. Filé is packaged in baby food jars. Red pepper is used, but sparingly. And everything is better when cooked outdoors.

Joey Fonseca of Des Allemands Outlaw Katfish is our one geographical exception. He lives on Bayou Des Allemands, which is upland from Bayou Lafourche. His wild catfish and his story are too excellent to miss.

Special thanks to SFA friends Celeste Uzee and Jim Gossen, whose knowledge about living and working down the bayou helped shape this project in immeasurable ways.

Interviews

Alzina's Restaurant - Alzina Toups - Southern Gumbo Trail

Alzina’s Restaurant

Alzina’s offers a one-of-a-kind dining experience. In the chef’s own words, it’s more of “get-together place” than a traditional restaurant. She entertains only one party per mealtime and accepts no walk-ins. Once you reserve the space, and her cooking talents, they are yours for the duration of one relaxing, home-cooked, serve-yourself meal.

Chine's Cajun Net Shop - Chine Terrebone - Bayou

Chine’s Cajun Net Shop

Lawrence “Chine” Terrebonne started making shrimp nets in his father’s Golden Meadow net shop when he was just nine years old, following in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather. More than 60 years later, the craft comes so naturally to him that he counted stitches and continued to work while giving this interview.

Coastal Bait Shop

In 2004, Al discovered a more profitable profession in catching and selling bait; today, his Coastal Bait Shop is one of the first businesses you come upon when entering Grand Isle. It’s there that he sells live and frozen bait—shrimp, croakers, pogies, minnows, squid, mullet, crabs—as well as handmade crab traps, bait tackle, and some prepared seafood for the unlucky, hungry fisherman. Al has witnessed, and endured, dips in business due to recent hurricanes and 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but he remains optimistic about the future of the bait trade. As long as there are fish in the Gulf, he believes, Louisianans will put out a line.

Collins Oyster Company - Nick Collins - Gumbo Trail

Collins Oyster Company

Nick learned oystering from his father, Wilbert Collins. Of six siblings, many of whom lend a hand in the business, he is the one who has made oystering his life’s work. It’s where he always knew he belonged.

Des Allemands Outlaw Katfish Co.

These days Joey and his three sons, commercial fishermen all, lure their prey by sinking hoop nets into the bayou, a modern improvement on can fishing. Joey’s wife, Jeannie, hand-sews the boys super-strong bait bags for their birthdays to use in the hoop nets. The Fonseca men are also shrimpers, crabbers, crawfishermen, and alligator hunters, depending on the weather and the season. New Orleanians enjoy wild catfish from Outlaw Katfish Company in some of the city’s finest restaurants, and also if they are lucky enough to make it to the Crescent City Farmers Market before Jeannie sells it all.

Leeville Seafood Restaurant - Donna Cheramie - Gumbo Trail

Leeville Seafood Restaurant

Seafood gumbo seasoned with ham and smoked sausage, crab patties, fried seafood platters, seafood fondue, salads piled high with chilled shrimp— Donna and a team of women whom she considers family prepare every dish in-house for a clientele of recreational fishermen, tourists passing through Leeville on their way to Grand Isle, and locals who point to Leeville Seafood Restaurant as a place where seafood is done right.

Louisiana Dried Shrimp Co. - Robert Collins and Son - Gumbo Trail

Louisiana Dried Shrimp

Robert Collins is a third-generation shrimp drier in Grand Isle—his teenage son, also named Robert, seems poised to take the company into its fourth generation. Robert inherited the family business, Louisiana Dried Shrimp Co., from his father, who learned to dry shrimp from his father, who learned to dry shrimp from the Chinese shrimp driers who used corner the dried shrimp market in and around Grand Isle back when a portion of the island was known as China Town.

M&M and C&G Boats - Mark Callais - Gumbo Trail & Down the Bayou

M&M and C&G Boats

Mark eventually moved into a PR job at M&M and C&G Boats, another offshore supply boat company, work that leverages his cooking prowess. Along the bayou, wining and dining clients in the oil business means taking them duck hunting by day and making gumbo on the company’s houseboat hotel by night. It means cooking jambalaya for 300 people, outdoors, in one cast iron pot. It means developing your own spice blend à la Tony Chachere’s and distributing it as parting gifts.

Marvin Autin - Push Pole Maker - Bayou

Marvin Autin

His grandfather, father, and uncle all crafted push poles. In fact, his grandfather, Pierre Benoit Autin, was a sort of Cajun survivalist. He trapped and hunted with his brood of six boys, who worked the marshes and trenasses with their father rather than attending elementary school; he pulled sunken cypress logs out of Lake Salvador in order to carve pirogues (Cajun canoes) from hand; and he made shrimp nets knot-by-knot before it was possible to buy pre-tied webbing. Marvin enjoyed a softer upbringing than his father’s—he, at least, was allowed to graduate from high school—but he always migrated to the outdoors. “We didn’t need to go to a gym to exercise,” he says. “We’d go in the marsh, and you can’t get that kind of exercise in a gym.”

Pierre Autin - Bayou

Pierre Autin

A lifelong hunter, trapper, and fisherman himself, Pierre speaks on such topics with the ease of a man who owned his own boat by the time he reached adolescence, and who was given free rein of the canals and bayous that are his region’s highways and byways before he could drive a car. That’s because he did, and he was. Lucky man.

Punch's Seafood Market - Melinda and Donald Punch - Gumbo Trail and Down the Bayou

Punch’s Seafood Market

Donald Punch was a shrimper all his life, following in the boot steps of his father, until his own son’s Type 1 diabetes forced him onto land. In the 1980s, Lockport’s small, public elementary school didn’t staff a nurse who could administer the kind of care a child with daily medical needs required. Donald and his wife, Melinda, then a high school physical sciences teacher, decided to open a seafood market so that Donald could get to his son at school as frequently as necessary. Donald misses life on the water and dreams of once again owning a small shrimp boat that he could man alone, but Punch’s Seafood Market is going strong and provides a more stable income than shrimping does these days.

Seafood Shed - George and Carol Terrebone - Seafood Shed

Seafood Shed

The Terrebones have endured major hardships in this line of work. They had to rebuild twice—Hurricane Katrina wiped out one dock; Hurricane Gustav the other. The profit on shrimp is the same today as it was in 1960, they say, while expenses have all increased over time. And 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill continues to affect their traffic—fewer shrimpers land at their dock, and fewer retail customers line up at their register. But, like so many Cajuns down the bayou, in spite of the difficulties, they love their life’s work.

Wayne and Donna Estay

Wayne, who worked for his father during high shrimp season his entire youth, stepped squarely into his shoes when the elder Estay died suddenly in 1975. Wayne didn’t even finish college until later, so necessary was he on the dock in Grand Isle, on Bayou Rigaud, where he and Donna worked side-by-side unloading shrimp boats (and, for a short period, fishing boats) for 36 years. In the month of May, says Wayne, they never unloaded less than two million pounds of shrimp.