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

NEW ORLEANS – The Day Before Hurricane Ida Last August, Maxine and Lanny Martin bought 150 pounds of shrimp in Chauvin, the Louisiana coastal town where they live. The shrimp come from fishermen along the Bayou Petit Caillou, a few blocks from the house where the Martins raise six children, including Melissa Martin, a chef and cookbook author in New Orleans.

That seafood stockpile was one reason the Martins initially resisted their daughter’s pleas that they evacuate before the storm that devastated communities on Louisiana’s southeast coast, including Chauvin. .

“I don’t worry about my house,” Melissa Martin said her mother told her later. “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 ground to the effects of climate change, which has also made hurricanes stronger, wetter, and more frequent. This area provided the inspiration for Ms. Martin’s restaurant, Mosquito Dinner Cluband her Cookbook 2020 same name.

The damage Ida caused to the coast gave impetus to the fundraising effort, which started with a website Ms. Martin built on the passenger seat in her car, which has raised more than $765,000 to support those on the coast still devastated by the storm, much of which was distributed in cash. with the cooperation of Helios Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Houma. “In the beginning, nobody could use a credit card for anything,” she said. “I received hundreds of direct messages and emails from people asking for cash.”

The campaign continues to invest in projects, including a fishing boat repair project, and amplifies the message of her book: Life is dangerous for residents of coastal towns like Chauvin and because of the rich culinary culture that flourishes there.

The land on the coast of Louisiana, the heart of Louisiana’s energy business, is disappear at alarm level. Oil exploration and fossil fuel pollution – the direct cause of global warming and rising sea levels – are also accelerating coastal erosion that erodes landmasses. wetlands that are important habitats for fish and other wildlife.

Ms. Martin, 44, is blunt about the damage the environmental crisis has taken. The recipes she features in her book, subtitled “Cajun Recipes from a Disapp A Bayou,” and at her restaurant represent a culture that those days she believed in. that have been numbered. And the collapse of an area that serves as a hurricane buffer for densely populated areas in the north, and home to billions of dollars worth of energy infrastructure, will be felt everywhere. .

“As this land disappears, it will lose part of our nation’s food supply and safety as well as a longstanding cultural heritage and tradition,” she writes in her book. “Water is our lifeline and our darkness.”

When Miss Martin and her father returned to Chauvin a few days after Ida made landfall, the shrimp they discovered still frozen in the family freezer were the only sight that was welcome for miles around.

“There are houses in the bay,” she said. “The buildings just disappeared.”

Miss Martin has been to the beach dozens of times since Ida. During those trips, she saw the harm caused by one of the strongest storms made landfall in Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, including communities that have not recovered since 2020, when a record number Tropical storms and hurricanes make landfall in the state.

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

The restaurant, which began in 2014 with a series of Cajun-themed parties and pop-ups, has slowly grown to become known for its seafood-focused dishes and its hospitality – chewing gum brought to the potted table, along with the potato salad, for guests to serve themselves. This dish is distinct from the spicier, sausage, commonly cooked Cajun hybrid popular in New Orleans, which originated mainly from the inland prairie around Lafayette.

By the time her cookbook was released in the spring of 2020, not long after the pandemic hit, Ms. Martin had already built a loyal following. (Musicians and actors Solange Knowlesan early fan, hired Miss Martin to cook for her wedding.)

Last fall, the effects of Hurricane Ida were still evident in the seafood dishes at New Orleans restaurants. East Coast oysters and farm-raised striped bass are very popular. Blue crabs in the Gulf of Mexico are unusually rare; it’s still expensive.

While local seafood remains the staple and widely available in restaurants in southern Louisiana, species that were once popular now often become scarce at some time of the year, not just after seasons. storm.

In 2019, heavy rain and snow flowed down the Mississippi River from the Midwest, flooding the Louisiana coast with fresh water and kill millions of people of oysters. Land loss and flood control projects have further altered the salinity of many lakes, coastal bays and bays, forcing fishermen to travel further to catch at lower prices at berths, partly due to competition from imports. reduced exports, which may not be able to cover the costs.

Those are the challenges that Ngoc Tran faced when Ida leveled up the headquarters of Seafood Company St. Vincent, which she and her husband, Trung, run on Bayou Lafourche, in Golden Meadow, about 40 miles east of Chauvin. All five of the business’s shrimp boats were inoperable due to storm damage.

In November, the hum of welders echoed around the crumbling stone where Ms. Tran, 39, was trying to re-establish St. Vincent. When asked about the location of one of her boats, she pointed across the bayou to the marsh where it had been accreted on its side. That boat is still there today, and St. Vincent has yet to be rebuilt.

Ms. Tran said: “The price is so high, people are still repairing houses. “And we still don’t have electricity.”

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

The reluctance of young people to join an industry more arduous and less lucrative than previous generations has left Louisiana with a conundrum: While seafood remains plentiful – The state still regularly ranks second to Alaska in fish production – the will and expertise to harvest it is dwindling.

The phenomenon, known locally as the “gray fleet,” is exacerbated by storms like Ida and is reflected in the dramatic decline in shrimp and oyster catches since 2019 A recently released research The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Louisiana State University estimated the state’s $2.5 billion fisheries industry suffered nearly $580 million in damage over the past two hurricane seasons.

More than half of all damage is caused by damage to infrastructure that may never be repaired. In November, Robert Collins, 62, the third generation owner of Louisiana Dried Fish Company, gazing up at the sky from the floor of his coastal facility on Grand Isle, one of Louisiana’s most vulnerable communities on the coast. Ida tore off most of the roof.

“I wouldn’t use my retirement savings to solve this,” he said. Last week, Mr. Collins said his business remained closed and he was unsure if it would ever reopen.

The future of the state’s seafood industry has always consisted of newcomers with different expectations and fewer scars than those who spawned it. Everyone likes it Scott Maurer.

Mr. Maurer, 45, started the oyster business after moving to Louisiana from Ohio to help rebuild his home after Katrina. Today, he raises premium oysters in cages in shallow water near Grand Isle. He is still committed to Louisiana Oyster Company, though he lost his entire crop to Ida.

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

Ms. Martin, the New Orleans chef, is also committed to building the business on her own terms. She has always considered the Mosquito Supper Club to be a growing organization with the goals of most traditional restaurants. It began when her daughter was in her teens, and it expanded gradually, as her duties as a single mother diminished.

The restaurant moved to its current location, inside a Victorian home in the Uptown neighbourhood, in 2016. Ms. Martin initially 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 fixed location in 2019.

Today, the Supper Club occupies the entire cottage, where Miss Martin is filled with antiques, handcrafted furniture and paintings by her brother Leslie, who is also a jazz pianist. The restaurant is now open four nights a week for one communal seat (and two private seats) for pre-ordered food dinners.

Food is served family style in large plates, porcelain bowls or iron pots. The mid-January menu includes the restaurant’s signature sweet potato biscuits, raw oysters topped with ponzu and finger limes and shrimp in lemon butter, all paired with natural wines. About 90% of the recipes available at the restaurant and in her books come from Ms. Martin’s mother.

In a recent email, Ms. Martin described the current incarnation of the Supper Club as a chapter in “a constantly changing experiment”. The goal is to create a sustainable business that allows her, among other things, to provide her employees with respectable salaries and health insurance. The restaurant, she wrote, “just happens to have a Cajun story fueling it.” The menu now incorporates ideas from Serigne Mbayewho started working as a culinary chef in October.

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

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

“Higgins will not just offer a premium product. They will deliver crab shells in plastic Piggly Wiggly bags,” she said. “Those are the things I remember growing up.”

Ms. Martin also continued to visit her hometown. She was there late last month, at her parents’ kitchen table, testing a King cake recipe with her mom for her next cookbook. She said she’ll be back even after the book is finished, “just to keep documenting what’s going on.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/01/dining/louisiana-seafood-climate-change-melissa-martin.html On the Cajun Coast, a chef grapples with threats to seafood traditions

Fry Electronics Team

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