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Thursday, July 15, 2010 01:40 am

Gulf tragedy gets personal

“The Cajun…. may be forgiven for being proud: for at one time he was the “poor folks” of the swamps. Then he took a land that nobody else wanted and turned it into something special: he made it his.”
- From The Longest Street by Tanya Brady Ditto

It’s personal for me – the Gulf oil spill. Certainly not to the same degree as for the folks whose lives and livelihoods have been thrown into chaos and uncertainty. But I’ve gotten to know some of them during visits to southwestern Louisiana over the last few years. I’ve seen their joie de vivre and determination to hang onto their unique culture in the face of an increasingly homogenized world. I’ve experienced their generous hospitality. So when I see those pictures of oil gushing into the Gulf waters, the gooey globs floating on the surface, and the oil-soaked shores and marshes, I’m also seeing familiar faces.

I see the Lafourcheaise, citizens of Lafourche parish, an hour south and slightly west of New Orleans. Mostly marshlands, swamps, Bayou Lafourche and shrimping villages, it was the first place my husband, Peter, and I visited when first venturing into Cajun country. We’d come for The French Food Festival, an almost 40-year-old annual event in Larose, population 7,500. Under a circus tent erected at the juncture of Bayou Lafourche and the Intercoastal Waterway, booths manned by churches, civic groups and local organizations offered a staggering variety of local specialties: alligator sauce piquante, oyster po-boys, shrimp boulettes, seafood pistolettes, boudin, beignets, tartes a la bouille…...

Taking a break from sampling, Peter and I stumbled upon some smaller tents. There were cooking and traditional craft demonstrations as well as one by the Bayou Hunting Retriever Club. But we stopped for the panel discussion about the local crab and shrimp industry, because I’d recently become aware of the effect cheap, farmed shrimp from Southeast Asia was having on American shrimpers. “Panel discussion” sounds formal; this consisted of three guys in ball caps and blue jeans, rears perched on a conference table, and about a dozen folks on folding chairs listening and asking questions. Generally they were upbeat. Though unhappy about the imported shrimp effect on prices, they were confident that their wild-caught shrimp were superior. Shrimp and crabs were plentiful, especially the crabs, which one called “the cockroaches of the sea.” Sounds distasteful, but his point was that the supply was so abundant that overfishing would never be a problem, and that crabs could withstand conditions harmful to other seafood. His biggest problem was finding enough workers to pick the crabmeat from the shells at his small processing facility.

Back under the big top, Waylon Thibodeaux’s band was tuning up. The lawn chairs folks brought had earlier been arranged in rows parallel to the stage for the Queens’ Crowns Auction (there were three, based on age), Texas Hold-em Tournament and Children’s Costume Contest. But now the chairs formed three sides of a large rectangle in front of the stage. When the music started we found out why: the rectangle immediately filled with dancers. There were dancers of all ages and abilities, from preteen couples through seniors. Grandfathers waltzed with tiny granddaughters standing on their feet; a mom and grade-school son perfectly executed the two-step. It was our first Cajun dance, and we were entranced – and not a little envious.

I see the folks working and eating at boiling points such as the Guiding Star in New Iberia and Richard’s Seafood Patio in Abbeville. Boiling points serve primarily – often only – seafood that’s boiled in a spicy broth, along with red potatoes, smoked sausage, whole onions and corn. Some are only open during crawfish season, which lasts roughly from late January through June. But most also have shrimp throughout the year, and crabs when crawfish aren’t available. (Louisiana crawfish are sustainably farmed in rice fields and not affected by the oil spill; after the rice is harvested in the fall, the fields are flooded and “seeded” with crawfish spawn; they are freshwater shellfish, not actually seafood.) Boiling points are about as far as you can get from fine dining, unless the “fine” refers to the shellfish’s quality. They’re served heaped on plastic beer trays, with an empty plastic cup for mixing condiments: hot sauces, mayonnaise and horseradish. You’ll know you’re in a real boiling point if you see a sink for hand-washing inside the dining room. Beer is the beverage of choice.

I see the oil-rig divers we’ve met at the Blue Moon in Layfayette. The Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House has become our home-away-from-home in SW Louisiana. It’s not fancy, but scrupulously clean, and has a fully equipped kitchen and two refrigerators where we stash the tasso ham, and boudin and andouille sausages we buy in local butcher shops to bring home.

We stay at the Blue Moon because it’s one of the area’s best music venues – written up in the New York Times and Boston Globe among others. BeauSoleil – perhaps the best nationally-known Cajun group, who appeared last month at Springfield’s PAC – had their latest CD release party there on one of our recent stays. Our usual room juts out into the “saloon;” one wall – with boarded over windows – is the backdrop of the small stage. The music is loud, but it’s music we love; and if we go to bed early, we fall asleep listening to musicians just a few feet away.

But the young divers stay there because of two hostel rooms, which provide inexpensive lodging during their off-weeks. We’ve learned about life on the oil rigs from them – several weeks on the rigs, then a week or so off. They’ve talked about the food (good), the isolation and the inherent dangers of their job. As late as January, 2009, almost all their work involved repairs of damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2006.

I see the elderly man at Harvest Seafood in Erath where we buy coolers-full of shrimp and crabs to bring home after every visit. Actually, Harvest Seafood isn’t in Erath – it’s in the middle of nowhere. We first found it when we spied a faded sign with an arrow after losing our way along back roads surrounded by cane fields. Everything at Harvest shouts a hard-scrabble existence: the long rutted driveway, the rusting mobile homes, the unkempt grounds, the wraith-like cats basking in the sun. But there’s a saying about fulfilling dreams hand-painted on the side of a wooden outbuilding. There’s an open shed with long rows of waist-high wooden trays filled with crabs of various sizes and circulating water where customers can choose their own crabs. The waist-high trays make it easier to monitor when the crabs shed their hard carapaces and become the highly prized soft-shells – something that lasts only a few hours. We place an order to be picked up on our last day, and, if we’re lucky, score the biggest, most succulent soft-shell crabs I’ve ever had to take back to the Blue Moon for our dinner. The elderly man is usually the only one there; his children and grandchildren are on the boats. On our last visit, he was fretting about the expensive new walk-in cooler state regulations forced them to buy.

The tragic photos of doomed, oil-saturated animals – the turtles, the ducks, the pelicans that are clownishly awkward on land and elegantly graceful in the air and water – are more than I can bear. I quickly have to close my eyes. But when I do, I see those faces – the dancers and fishermen in Larose, the folks in the boiling points, the divers, the man at Harvest Seafood, and a host of others. And I feel like crying.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

RealCuisine Recipe
Shrimp and Corn Soup

Shrimp and corn soup is as commonly found as gumbo on Cajun restaurant menus. Most – in fact, all – recipes I’ve seen for this classic use canned creamed corn, and usually canned corn as well. I developed this recipe using only fresh (or fresh-frozen) corn. The puréed corn has a surprisingly velvety texture and adds just the right body and a better corn flavor. It’s equally good using crabmeat or crawfish in place of the shrimp.

  • 8 T. unsalted butter (1 stick)
  • 1/2 c. chopped onion, NOT super sweet
  • 1 T. minced garlic
  • 3/4 c. finely chopped bell peppers – red, green, yellow or a combination, plus an additional 1/4 c. red peppers for garnish, optional
  • 1/2 c. finely chopped celery
  • 1 T. seeded and minced jalapeno, or more if desired, optional
  • 1/2 c. all-purpose, unbleached flour
  • 4 c. cooked corn kernels, fresh or frozen, liquid reserved (approx. 6-8 ears)
  • 4 c. whole milk, at room temperature
  • 1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined, and halved lengthwise if large.
  • Kosher or sea salt, freshly ground white pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste
  • 1 c. minced scallions, green and white parts separated

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the onion, garlic, 3/4 c. bell peppers, celery and jalapenos (if using) and sauté until softened and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture (called a roux) is very lightly browned, 2-5 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk. In a blender or food processor, purée 2 cups of the corn until smooth and add to the saucepan along with the whole corn kernels and their liquid. Bring to the lowest possible simmer, and cook for about 15 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes, or until the shrimp are cooked through. Stir in the white parts of the scallions. Season to taste with the salt and peppers. Remove from the heat and let stand for 5-10 minutes to blend the flavors. Serve immediately, garnished with the green parts of the scallions and diced red pepper, if using.
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