Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series. Look for the second part in High Life next week.
In June 2010, barely a month after oil, concrete and gas shot through the drill pipe of Transocean's Deepwater Horizon, PBS producer William Brangham prematurely buried the tiny community of Grand Isle, La., declaring this could be "the end of the road" for the island. Local residents that Brangham interviewed were no doubt in shock as they began what would be their first summer of uncertainty in the wake of the worst man-made disaster to rock the domestic oil industry.
I grew up in a small, college town surrounded by cane fields and bisected by Bayou Lafourche two hours up the road from Grand Isle on Highway 1. Unlike Brangham, I know these people. Surrender is not an option. Many of them can trace their ancestors to the British expulsion of French settlers from Nova Scotia and their perilous, deadly journey to the swamps and marshes of south Louisiana. Adversity - both from Mother Nature and cruel armies - had been their lot for centuries. Survival is in their DNA.
The inhabitants of this eroding sliver of land roughly 52 miles southwest of New Orleans have endured three centuries of hurricanes that hit on average every 7.88 years. Neither the storm of 1893 with its 17-foot storm surge that decimated coastal communities nor Hurricane Camille in 1969 could bury the island. The Last Island Hurricane of 1856 turned the Isles Dernieres to the west into a barren memorial for 200 unsuspecting victims who perished in the storm. Only exhausted migratory birds and a statue of the Virgin Mother occupy the remaining island now. Grand Isle, with her highway connection to the mainland, has endured.
But there was something sinister and unfamiliar about the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. For generations, islanders had dealt with Mother Nature's temper tantrums. They knew how to rebuild their homes (known as "camps") and fix their boats. Starting over wasn't a foreign concept to them. They knew that after a storm fish and shrimp would be plentiful and tourists would soon return. They also knew that since the early 1960s, it was common to see tar balls on the beaches. But as the oil plume began to creep into the south Louisiana marshes, at the start of the busiest time of the year, alarm bells sounded. These were frightening, uncharted waters.
From Hell to Purgatory
Last summer, I visited my brother Mike LeBlanc and his wife Becky at their camp in Grand Isle. I sensed an eerie pall over the island. The ship channel was nearly empty. The usual stream of workboats and support vessels servicing the offshore rigs was gone. Jack-up rigs were moored and silent. For how long remained a burning question. But it was the absence of shrimp trawlers with their booms extended and nets hanging like Dracula's cape that spooked me the most.
In the wake of the disaster, all temporal readings in Grand Isle are measured in terms of "Before BP" and "After BP." Any tale about seafood, real estate or the oil industry usually begins with one of the two qualifiers. Unfortunately, anything starting with "After BP" was not good. Until now.
The third summer "after BP" is underway and a sense of normalcy is evident as the island struggles to return to the life it knew before the oil - and the international press - overran it. The media left and the tourists are returning.
Returning to seafood heaven
In contrast to my experience in 2011, from the moment we crossed the bridge onto the island, I could sense a renewed energy. In the distance, majestic trawlers once again filled their nets with shrimp as gulls flocked to scoop up aquatic goodies the nets stirred up. Signs advertising fresh seafood were in abundance again. My brother said the real estate market was heating up, obviously a positive sign, particularly in this economy. The seafood had long been deemed safe. The sky was blue. The sea was calm. Most of all, the fish were biting. Life was good.
We stopped at Camardelle's Seafood on Highway 1 just before the bridge. Camardelle's was famous to local residents and visitors long before President Obama and his Secret Service army invaded their space in June 2010. To me, Camardelle's appears in my epicurean dreams as cayenne scented clouds of steam and pots of boiling blue crabs, shrimp and the obligatory corn on the cob, new potatoes and smoked sausage. For the past 11 months, I'd waited impatiently for shrimp season and a visit to what I consider one of the best seafood shops in the nation. I had arrived!
Proprietor and "boiler" Chris Camardelle grew up on Grand Isle. In 1947, his father came to Grand Isle from "the West Bank" (as in west bank of the Mississippi across from New Orleans, not the other one) to work the fishing boats with Camardelle's grandfather. Now Camardelle, whose partner in life, Juanita Cheramie, and son Jake Kraemer work alongside him. Approximately 90 percent of the product sold comes from Camardelle's own crab traps and fleet of shrimp boats. Although he has another crab source and brings in crawfish from the rice paddies near Henderson, they sell what they catch.
Later I learned it was the beginning of "90 days of haymaking" on the island. If they don't have a good season between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the winter ahead would be tight. Memorial Day had been one of the biggest ever. Spirits were high; far from Brangham's "nail in the coffin" report two years ago. Barring any pre-Labor Day storms, they were on track for a relatively normal season, whatever normal is "after BP."
The best thing I got at Camardelle's was their agreement to let me spend an afternoon "boiling" with them. Given the summer heat and humidity, boiling is not a bad way to describe what happens to seafood and humans alike! Cheramie, who had seen more than her share of self-serving reporters, most of whom in her opinion failed to capture the true soul of the islanders, reluctantly agreed to my request for a behind the scenes experience. Perhaps it was that I was a child of the bayou whose soul was never quite severed from the land despite years of absence or that she just liked the idea. Whichever, she agreed.
So I went on with siblings in happy anticipation of Saturday - a morning of fishing for speckled trout, an afternoon of boiling seafood and an evening spent eating it! These are truly the finer things of life in south Louisiana that includes the blessings of family, nature's bounty and the beauty and serenity of being on the Gulf waters. What more could a bayou girl ask for?
Now that I've set the scene and hopefully whetted your appetite, join me next week when I take you behind the scenes with Cheramie for a unique education in Louisiana seafood and proof that life - and the seafood - in Grand Isle is good after BP.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.