NEW ORLEANS — Days before Hurricane Ida hit last August, Maxine and Lanny Martin bought 150 pounds of shrimp in Chauvin, the Louisiana coastal town where they live. The shrimp came from fishermen along Bayou Petit Caillou, a few blocks from the house where the Martins raised six children, including Melissa Martin, a chef and cookbook writer in New Orleans.
That stock of seafood is one of the reasons the Martins initially resisted their daughter’s pleas to evacuate ahead of the storm, which devastated communities on Louisiana’s southeast coast, including Chauvin.
“I wasn’t worried 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, which is central to the state’s commercial fishing industry, has lost land to the effects of climate change, which also makes the storms more powerful, more humid and frequent. The area is the inspiration for Ms. Martin’s restaurant, Mosquito Supper Club, and her 2020 cookbook of the same name.
The damage Ida caused to the coast sparked a fundraiser, started on a website Ms. Martin built in the passenger seat of her car, which has raised more than $765,000 to help residents of the still storm-ravaged coast. help, much of it distributed in cash in partnership with the Helio Foundation, a non-profit organization in Houma. “In the beginning, no one could use credit cards for anything,” she said. “I got hundreds of DMs and emails from people asking for money.”
The campaign continues to invest in projects, including one to repair fishing boats, and reinforce the message of her book: life is dangerous for residents of coastal towns like Chauvin, and for the rich food culture that flourishes there.
Land on the Louisiana coast, the heart of Louisiana’s energy sector, is disappearing at an alarming rate. Oil exploration and fossil fuel pollution — a direct cause of global warming driving sea level rise — is also accelerating coastal erosion that is crumbling at wetlands that are critical habitats for fish and other wildlife.
Ms Martin, 44, is blunt about the toll this environmental crisis has already taken. The recipes she lists in her book, subtitled “Cajun Recipes from a Vanishing Bayou,” and in her restaurant represent a culture whose days she believes are numbered. And the demise of an area that acts as a storm buffer for densely populated areas in the north and contains billions of dollars in energy infrastructure will be felt everywhere.
“If this land disappears, it will take with it part of our nation’s security and food supply, and a long legacy of culture and traditions,” she writes in her book. “Water is our lifeline and our dark shadow.”
When Mrs. Martin and her father returned to Chauvin a few days after Ida landed, the shrimp they discovered were still frozen in the family’s tightly sealed freezer, the only welcome sight for miles around.
“There were houses in the bayou,” she said. “Buildings just disappeared.”
Mrs. Martin has traveled to the coast dozens of times since Ida. On those trips, she saw the damage caused by one of the most powerful storms to hit Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 exacerbated in communities yet to recover from 2020, when a record number of tropical storms and hurricanes hit the state.
“Right now it doesn’t feel sustainable down there,” she said as she sat on the porch of the Mosquito Supper Club in October for the first of several interviews.
The restaurant, which began in 2014 as a series of Cajun-themed parties and pop-ups, has gradually gained notoriety for its seafood-focused cuisine and homely hospitality — gumbo is brought to the table in jars, along with potato salad, for diners to indulge in. operate. The food is different from the spicier, sausage-forward, often hybridized Cajun cuisine common in New Orleans, whose roots mainly extend to the inland prairies around Lafayette.
By the time her cookbook came out in the spring of 2020, not long after the pandemic arrived, Ms. Martin had built a loyal following. (The musician and actress Solange Knowles, an early fan, hired Ms. Martin to cook for her wedding.)
Last fall, the ripple effects of Hurricane Ida were still evident in seafood offerings at New Orleans restaurants. East coast oysters and farmed striped bass were remarkably common. Blue crab from the Gulf of Mexico was unusually rare; it remains expensive.
While local seafood is still basic and widely available in South Louisiana’s restaurants, species that used to be ubiquitous now routinely become scarce at some point in the year, and not just after hurricanes.
In 2019, heavy rain and snow runoff from the Midwest poured down the Mississippi River, flooding the Louisiana coast with freshwater and killing millions of oysters. Land loss and flood control projects have further altered the salinity of many coastal lakes, bays and bayous, forcing fishermen to travel further afield for a catch whose dockside prices, squeezed in part by competition from imports, may not cover costs.
Those are some of the challenges Ngoc Tran faced when Ida razed the headquarters of the St. Vincent Seafood Company, which she and her husband Trung run on Bayou Lafourche, in Golden Meadow, about 40 miles east of chauvin. All five of the company’s shrimp boats were rendered useless by storm damage.
In November, the buzz of welders reverberated around the rubble-strewn slab where Ms. Tran, 39, St. Vincent trying to recover. Asked about the location of one of her boats, she pointed across the bayou to the swamp where it had been deposited on its side. Today that boat is still there, and St. Vincent has yet to be rebuilt.
“The prices are so high, and everyone is still working on repairing houses,” said Ms. Tran. “And we still have no electricity.”
Ms. Tran cannot 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 participate in an industry that is more difficult and less lucrative than in previous generations has left Louisiana in a troubling conundrum: Though its seafood abounds – the state still routinely ranks second after Alaska in seafood production – the will and expertise to harvest it is dwindling.
Known locally as “fleet aging,” the phenomenon is being exacerbated by storms like Ida and is reflected in the sharp decline in shrimp and oyster volumes caught since 2019. A recently published study by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Louisiana State University estimate that the $2.5 billion marine industry has suffered nearly $580 million in losses over the past two hurricane seasons.
More than half of the losses resulted from damage to infrastructure that may never be repaired. In November, Robert Collins, 62, the third-generation owner of Louisiana Dried Fish Company, stared at the sky from the floor of his waterfront facility in Grand Isle, one of the most vulnerable communities on the Louisiana coast. Ida had almost torn off the entire roof.
“I’m not going to use my retirement savings to fix this,” he said. Last week, Mr Collins said his business was still closed and he wasn’t sure if it would ever reopen.
The future of the state’s fishing industry will invariably include newcomers with different expectations and fewer scars than those born with it. People like Scott Maurer.
Mr. Maurer, 45, fell for the oyster trade after moving to Louisiana from Ohio to help rebuild homes after Katrina. Today, he farms premium oysters in cages in the shallows off Grand Isle. He remains committed to his Louisiana Oyster Company, even though he lost his entire crop to Ida.
“As long as I can go broke every once in a while, I think I’m winning,” he said. “I live on an island and work on the water.”
Ms. Martin, the New Orleans chef, is similarly committed to building a business on her own terms. She has always thought of Mosquito Supper Club as a work-in-progress whose goals are different from those of most traditional restaurants. It started when her daughter was in her early teens, and it gradually expanded as her single mother duties diminished.
The restaurant moved to its current location in 2016, in a Victorian cottage in the Uptown neighborhood. Ms. Martin initially shared the space with other female entrepreneurs, including Christina Balzebre, who ran her Levee Baking Company as an in-space pop-up before opening at a permanent location in 2019.
Today, the Supper Club occupies the entire cottage, which Mrs. Martin has filled with antiques, handcrafted furniture and paintings by her brother Leslie, who is also a jazz pianist. The restaurant is currently open four nights a week for communal (and two private) seating of a multi-course preset dinner.
The food is served family style in large bowls, ceramic dishes or iron pots. A mid-January menu included the restaurant’s signature sweet potato cakes, raw oysters topped with ponzu and finger lime, and shrimp in lemon butter, all paired with natural wines. About 90 percent of the recipes in the restaurant and in her book come from Ms. Martin’s mother.
In a recent email, Ms. Martin described the current incarnation of the Supper Club as a chapter in “an ever-changing experiment”. The goal is to create a sustainable company that will allow her to provide her employees with a decent wage and health insurance, among other things. The restaurant, she wrote, “happens to have a Cajun story driving it.” The menu now features ideas from Serigne Mbaye, who started as chef de cuisine in October.
Ms. Martin’s work is still inextricably linked to the disappearing bayou. Hurricane Ida, she said, “definitely changed the way we cook.”
The raw oysters and shrimp on the January menu both came from Alabama. And the chef has yet to find a reliable crab supplier to replace Higgins Seafood, which hasn’t reopened since Ida poured mud into its Lafitte headquarters.
“Higgins wouldn’t just deliver a superior product. They’d deliver crab shells in plastic Piggly Wiggly bags,” she said. “That’s the kind of thing I remember from growing up.”
Mrs. Martin also continues to visit her hometown. She was there late last month, at her parents’ kitchen table, testing a king cake recipe with her mother for her next cookbook. She said she will return even after the book is finished, “just to keep recording what’s happening.”