Dawn. Less than a mile south of Highway 90 on Route 632, the small country road divests Allemands Elementary of its sports fields. We have a few hours before the threat of screaming children compromise our camping spot. From my roost on white bleachers I look on as the sun peeks through the trees at the arena’s fringe and pushes through the blue obscurity, divulging emerald fields. Inchoate rays pass through backstop fencing forming a latticed penumbra on the walls of our small dome tent, where Wiley remains sleeping. I make tea with my coleman beside me and my book in my lap. By the time Wiley finally emerges, stooped shouldered and hair wild, the tent is basked in sunlight; it’s the heat that’s probably awakened him. I’ve already packed and done laundry (a practice Wiley considers anal retentive, I carry two pairs of socks rotated and washed daily; they will set on my back rack to dry; or in the case of rain, a hand dryer at a fast food restaurant will do the trick) and I signal to Wiley that a breakfast of oats and raisins is waiting for him on the bleachers. I look over my notes while he eats and gets ready.
On the four laned behemoth of highway 90 there is little shelter from the sun and the heat radiates from above and beneath our pedaling feet. A promise of refuge up ahead appears in a sign, white with hand-scripted red lettering promoting fresh boiled seafood. For Wiley, who is a recent California transplant, crawfish remains a novelty. It’s the only thing he’s wanted to eat since the season opened earlier this Spring. We’ve hardly been biking two hours, but as we approach and then pass the small side-of-the-road seafood shack, Wiley catches up with me and gives me a look that needs no verbal articulation. We double back, park our bikes and slip inside the small cinderblock construction.The building, a former gas station with a time-frozen sign, circa $1.08 a gallon, is set off from the highway by a cul de sac, the grass of which, is littered with a dinghy, truck and trailer. A banner spans the building’s stark white facade and reads in signature red lettering, LES CRABES SEAFOOD LLC. Once inside, the smell of boiled crawfish is arresting. A counter cuts the room in two, leaving but a small standing space for customers. Other than a couple of small paintings on wooden panel of the usual oceanside motif, the decor is spartan.The only natural light filters through a sliding glass that has since replaced one of two roll-up garage doors. A large wooden desk is set before it and working the phones is a stout and scallop-complected man with a halo of oyster-gray hairs encircling a stone-smooth scalp; his booming voice fills the room with the rigamarole of seafood busy-ness. Without pausing he welcomes us with large smiling eyes, a Barataria blue. While proprietor Tommy Vanacor worked the phones, his partner Jennifer loaded our plate with piping hot seafood. It was only after devouring four pounds of fresh crawfish and fixins served with homemade remoulade by the soft-spoken and sweet-as-pie proprietes that Wiley and I introduced ourselves and asked the couple for an interview.
Tommy was born and raised in the fishing community of Des Allemands and he can trace his lineage to the original German immigrants for which this settlement was named in the early 18th century. When Tommy and Jennifer purchased the building that houses Les Crabes Seafood together with their adjoining home, they had initially rented the commercial space to a seafood outfit, which had tried and failed. Tommy and Jennifer figured they had a better chance for success than their predecessors. For one they owned the building. Most importantly they had generations of experience and relations still trapping and trolling throughout Southern Louisiana. Tommy's people are crabbers and Jennifer’s are shrimpers - together they had their bases covered and they went for it. The necessary equipment was purchased and the building was renovated; but alas, the grand opening at the start of the May shrimp season was upset by the BP Oil Spill. It was a huge financial loss. Not only were they unable to open their business, but their safety net had been compromised.
Tommy and Jennifer’s livelihoods were at stake. They were denied BP assistance. Their fledgling business didn’t qualify for the BP Compensation Fund’s requirement of one year’s receipts from which to judge a financial loss. Luckily, one of Jennifer's brothers, who ran a fairly large shrimping enterprise, was able to provide them with work on a boat retrofitted with booms for the cleanup effort. Tommy and Jennifer worked for three months skimming oil in the Gulf of Mexico. The work was a lifeline that saw them through the remainder of the year; until the fishing industry made a small recovery, enough for them to open the doors to their new business. As of today Les Crabes Seafood has been in operation for 7 months, but the future remains uncertain. Tommy becomes visibly agitated when asked to speak about the BP Oil Spill. He is particularly incensed at BP's decision to use the chemical dispersant Corexit. It appears to have affected the crab and oyster populations exceptionally bad and their numbers keep dwindling. “There's no telling what the long term effects will be - we'll just have to wait and see,” Tommy states resignedly. The phones begin to ring and Tommy excuses himself.
Wiley and I turn our attention to Jennifer who, with a smile, obliges our request for her story. Jennifer was born into a large family of 15 in Jimmy Bay of Barataria. Her daddy was strict and her stepmom was outright mean. Along with seven of her siblings she was pulled out of school to work at the family’s fishing camp. It was the kids’ job to build the crab traps.
“Looking back I have fond memories,” she says, “but at the time it seemed like drudgery.”
Jennifer was especially chagrined by her lack of formal education. “I got no education,” she says.
"But you are plenty educated in the fishing industry," I submit.
"That's what I'm telling her all the time," Tommy pipes in, placing the phone’s receiver to his chest.
Jennifer has a grown daughter living in Los Angeles, married to a navy man. When the conversation turns to her granddaughter she becomes animated.
“She calls me 'mamman'” Jennifer beams. "And when anyone asks her, she says ‘I'm a cajun’. But she's so well educated, living all over the place in a navy family. She doesn't talk like us; she doesn't have our accent; she speaks proper.”
Tommy, now off the phone, chimes in about his own daughter – the pride of parenthood, their children and their cultural heritage – “she's living in Texas now and she complains, ‘Daddy, I'm losing my coonass-ness’” Tommy says with a chuckle that emanates from the bottom of his gut and fills the room with mirthe.