June 16, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the second story in a two-part series on Grand Isle, La. Visit http://www.vaildaily.com to read the first one.
Dawn on water, any body of water, is magical. Dawn on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Grand Isle, La., when the fish are biting is pure heaven. So began my Saturday. Fishing in the morning with family and an afternoon at Camardelle’s Seafood were worth leaving the cool mountain air of Colorado for the heat and humidity of Louisiana in June.
After leaving the Sand Dollar Marina, with my fishing license in hand and a tank full of lively bait shrimp, we headed northeast into Barataria Bay. The sights, sounds and smells that had escaped me for decades bombarded my senses. We passed shrimp boats and saw rare sightings – workboats coming back from the few rigs still operating offshore.
Unlike last summer, dolphins were everywhere, particularly next to boats where they competed with fishermen for trout. Their numbers and playfulness seemed in stark contrast to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that dolphins in the bay were sick and dying. No doubt the scientists studied the mammals well, but what I saw on the water and what I heard from local residents was contrary to media reports of doom.
The sky was full of brown pelicans in search of fish in the water that had finally returned to “before BP” clarity. I couldn’t remember seeing any brown pelicans except on the shield of Louisiana, “The Pelican State.” They were nearly extinct when I was young and fished the marshes with my dad. But through tireless wildlife management and a DDT ban, the species survived.
We anchored off Queen Bess Island, a pelican rookery and site of the renaissance of this near-extinct bird. Fortunately, the wind was calm. The birds – or the fertilizer they leave behind – emit a rather odious aroma that can be overwhelming when anchored downwind from the flocks. When the island was overrun by crude from Deepwater Horizon, scientists predicted the brown pelican’s demise. Many feared the site of the species’ rebirth was destined to become its final resting place.
Since seafood business all but dried up in the weeks after the rig exploded, Chris Camardelle leased his convenience store to BP for use as a triage station for oil-covered wildlife. Like the people of the state it symbolizes, brown pelicans endured in the face of calamity. Of the 900 affected birds triaged, more than 300 survived. Now they fill the skies, perch on structures and compete with gulls for morsels left by shrimp boats trawling the waters.
Our morning yielded 25 specks, along with several catfish and a stingray that went back to water to harass other fishermen. It was now time to head back to Camardelle’s for my afternoon seafood-boiling experience.
When I arrived, the air was balmy and filled with the pungent smell of boiled seafood. Melissa Terrebonne was busy cutting red potatoes. Terrebonne is an employee, but she works hard like an owner. Making myself at home, I grabbed a knife and joined her. The potatoes, corn and pieces of smoked sausage are boiled in a large basket to soak up cayenne pepper and the water’s melange of flavors. Lemon, salt and crab boil – which is also used for shrimp and crawfish – are the typical seasonings for boiling Louisiana seafood. Camardelle also adds Chinese pepper to give the water an extra kick, as though cayenne needs help in spicing up food. But it works beautifully. Unlike many outside Louisiana who think true Cajun cuisine requires a cayenne-pepper assault on the taste buds, Camardelle and his staff know exactly how to season water to achieve a savory blend that won’t overwhelm the shellfish’s delicate flavors but still has the requisite kick.
Juanita “Juan” Cheramie, Camardelle’s partner in life and business, joined us as we counted out pieces of corn on the cob and smoked sausage. Cheramie is passionate about everything that comes from the Gulf waters and the hard work it takes to prepare it. She delighted in telling me that over Memorial Day weekend, they sold 150 pounds of shrimp and 80 dozen crabs. They also sell crawfish, which have been plentiful this year. Business was definitely picking up, and barring a late-summer hurricane, they would have profitable “haymaking days” to survive the slower winter months.
Outside, Jake Kraemer was checking crabs for signs of life. Kraemer, who was wearing thick rubber gloves as he lifted crabs from a large hamper, tossed the obviously live – and ticked off – crabs into smaller baskets. The lethargic ones were placed on their backs to check for signs of life. Some play possum, some try to snap, some are just flat-out dead. But only the live ones make it to the boiling pot. This extra step assures clients they get only the freshest seafood.
As clients arrived for their orders, Camardelle boiled crabs and Terrebonne carefully boxed them. Cheramie and Camardelle culled and purged crawfish, the next to be boiled. As I cleaned the tables, Cheramie told me of their hardships after the spill. Their experience with the government was no picnic. Cheramie explained they “live off the land” and not being able to crab and trawl deepened their financial difficulties. Government officials prohibited them from crabbing off their own docks for their own consumption. But they spied the officials throwing their own nets into the water. Louisianans don’t take kindly to hypocrisy.
Deepwater Horizon continues to hurt area businesses. Not only did they suffer tremendous loss of business and unfair calculations of damages, but now the drilling moratorium is hitting Camardelle’s hard. A large part of its pre-spill business was catering for the oil industry. Owners and operators feed their crews well to ease the separation from families during long weeks spent working on drilling platforms and onboard support vessels. Camardelle’s provided not only seafood but produce, as well. Few rigs remain in the Gulf waters, so tourism remains Camardelle’s prime source of income.
Perversely, Deepwater Horizon generated interest in the area, which is spurring growth in Grand Isle’s tourism industry. But as the third summer since the oil invaded the region begins, troubling questions still remain. The focus of the media has been on the oil-covered wildlife and beaches. The visuals are graphic and useful to tell sensational stories. But local residents worry about an invisible potential threat – the dispersants. No one really knows the long-term effects of the highly controversial Corexit on marine life and on the people who consume the seafood from the Gulf waters. While many consultants rake in money studying Corexit, life goes on in south Louisiana.
Sarah’s Restaurant, highlighted in William Brangham’s June 2010 PBS documentary that prematurely buried the island, is still open for business. The hotels are filling up for the summer. The oldest fishing tournament in America, the Tarpon Rodeo, is back. Beachfront property and marina camps are in big demand. Deepwater Horizon has now joined the growing list of infamous disasters that have plagued the Louisiana coast – Betsy, Camille, Andrew, Katrina and the nameless storms known only by the years they struck.
But the inhabitants of the coast will continue to thrive and rebound as they have for centuries. The courage and strength of their ancestors who survived their perilous exodus from Nova Scotia and established the bayou culture will see them through this. They will pray that Mike Tidwell’s homage to Louisiana, “Bayou Farewell,” will not be a eulogy for their culture but a plea to government officials to protect the wetlands and preserve Louisiana’s role in our nation’s well-being.
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 http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.