A DISPATCH FROM ASHLEY HALL
TUESDAY, JUNE 29, 2010
A week ago I sat down with Kendall Stork, co-owner of the Lighthouse Restaurant in Bayou La Batre. The restaurant, opened by Kendall’s parents in 1979, is the go-to spot for prepared local seafood.
Last Monday, June 21, Kendall seemed concerned but upbeat. “So far, everything is going well,” he said.
At the Lighthouse, Kendall prides himself on the fact that all of the seafood on the menu – an assortment of crab, oysters, shrimp, flounder- is caught regionally, if not locally. And all are battered and fried to order.
“I buy from our local fishermen. I buy from our local shrimp shops around here. I know where the shrimp’s caught. I know where the fish is caught. That’s why people keep coming back. They know I know what I’m doing.”
Kendall’s ideal is to buy from the local guys on the Bayou, the fellows he went to school with, the fellows he goes hunting with. But if it’s not possible, he’ll buy from western Louisiana, Texas or Florida.
One thing he will not do is buy imported seafood. He tried imported shrimp once, he says, on what sounded like a dare. “The meat of the shrimp had absolutely no taste. It was like eating paper,” he said.
Besides real or perceived issues with flavor, “imported” is a dirty word around here. The cheap, frozen imports from Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil, Ecuador and Chile put a lot of Alabama shrimpers on the brink of collapse even before the oil spill. The depressed prices of these imports make it extremely difficult for Americans, with higher fuel and labor costs, to compete.
As of yesterday Kendall said he could still get every piece of seafood on his menu from the Gulf, with the exception of mullet. Each Wednesday night since 1980, The Lighthouse has served mullet and grits as a special. But all of the mullet’s habitats have been closed to fishing for about four weeks. Still he is getting shrimp, fish and oysters from western Louisiana, where the oil has not reached, though he says oysters are getting increasingly difficult to find.
“I hate to go that far to get product when guys around here are not working. I don’t call that local, but it’s the same kind of shrimp we get around here.”
“One thing you can take to the bank is that I’m not going to buy no imports.” When asked what he would do if getting Gulf shrimp or oysters became impossible, he paused. “I don’t know. I haven’t been asked that question yet. We’re hoping we don’t have to go that far.”
He says that prices have gone up. Shrimp prices had more than doubled from $2.10 a pound to $4.20 a pound, which eats into his profits. “We’ll deal with that later, I guess.”
One thing he wasn’t yet worried about was his sales. Yesterday every seat in the restaurant was full for lunch. There was still an hour wait on Friday night. Besides the local fishermen eating on their BP income, there are BP employees in the area, and volunteers who have come for HAZMAT training, so that they can join the clean up. Plus there’s the Shell refinery up the road, which is full loyal customers. Kendall, like so many others around here, desperately wants off-shore drilling to continue.
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Ashley Hall is an SFA member and contributer to Gravy, the SFA’s foodletter. She is traveling along the Gulf Coast to capture stories relating to the oil spill as a traveling Gravy correspondent. We’ll be posting relevant entries here, but visit the blog she’s set up for the project, Third Coast Byways, for more.