It’s been another night of thunderstorms, and it’s still raining when I wake up. But I’ve got a long way to drive to my lunch date in Lafayette, so I need to get going. No need for breakfast, that’s for sure. A quick cup of coffee, and I’m ready to say goodbye to Texas. But something holds me back—I haven’t really given Port Arthur a chance. I have a map of sights from the hotel, so I detour through the city. A Buddhist Temple is evidence of the Vietnamese presence here. The route takes me past some historic Victorians along the waterfront, and a campus of Lamar State, then back in the dying downtown. The web says Port Arthur is poised for downtown redevelopment, it certainly needs it.
As soon as I cross the bridge to Louisiana, there’s nothing but miles of wet and green—rain on saltmarsh, water above and below. It’s three miles into Louisiana before I see my first tree. Another mile brings me my first gas flare. Highway 82 to Cameron is quiet and lonely on a rainy Saturday morning. The road periodically brushes the beach, one stretch with extensive nearshore armoring, clearly to protect the road, a shrimper in the distance. Herons and egrets are everywhere, and even a few roseate spoonbills, one of my favorite birds. Was that a muskrat or a nutria than ran across the road? The oil industry is everywhere. I approach what looks like a small refinery of some kind, with a strange boat. Then I recognize it—a menhaden purse-seiner, at an Omega Protein menhaden plant. The NOAA statistics say that Cameron lands the 8th largest amount of fish in the country, over 150M pounds, mostly menhaden. Menhaden are worth so little that it only ranks 59th in value. I’m glad I decided to exclude menhaden factory towns from the road trip.
The highway ferry to Cameron can hold a lot more cars than the three of us, but I don’t have to wait long before it crosses the outlet (canal?) of Calcasieu Lake. There are shrimp boats in Cameron, not too many, smaller and rigged differently from the big boats in Texas. These must be inshore boats, perhaps the skimmers I’ve heard about. It’s at Cameron where I really notice the evidence of hurricane damage. I don’t see any piles of wreckage, just empty concrete slabs at the end of driveways, some with a trailer parked next to them. Now attuned, I notice a pattern of prefab houses on stilts, along with the occasional abandoned house. Hurricane Rita was the culprit here, Cameron close to ground zero. It looks like the recovery is going to be long and slow.
My route continues through mile after mile of largely empty marsh, with occasional small beach towns (all houses on stilts) and the occasional fisherman on a bridge. It’s midday before I reach ground that’s high enough for houses to be merely up a foot or two off the ground (protection from normal water). With all my driving along the coast, I’ve come to view elevated houses as normal. I end up in actual traffic as I approach Lafayette (Saturday mall shopping I learn later), which is also a bit shocking after hours of emptiness. Soon enough the GPS detours me around Lafayette, the biggest city in the area (over 120,000!), although I’m not happy it routes me briefly on I-10, which I’ve avoided until now. On the north side of Lafayette I hook up with my former colleague Simon Mahan for lunch, on a highway that will take me straight south to Dulac in the afternoon.
After lunch, I slowly make my way around the other side of Lafayette as I head south. I see signs for places I’ve heard of in songs: Thibodeaux, Louisiana (Amos Moses) and Lake Charles (Cripple Creek). I’m planning on a detour to Avery Island, home of Tabasco Sauce. There was a time when Tabasco Sauce was the only hot sauce available in the United States, and it was used sparingly. (A joke from what seems like an ancient history text: “They’ve been married so long they’re on their second bottle of Tabasco Sauce.”) Now of course supermarkets have hot sauce sections. I’ve actually been mildly surprised to see all the Tabasco Sauce bottles on restaurant tables on this trip. The factory is modest in size considering the quantity shipped by the McIlhenny Family (the sixth generation is in charge), and I don’t have time for the tour.
I do have time for a detour to Morgan City, which is just off my route. Morgan City features prominently in the Mississippi River section of John McPhee’s Control of Nature. Only the constant vigilance of the Army Corps of Engineers is keeping Morgan City from drowning by the Mississippi, which desperately wants to reach the Gulf via the Atchafalaya River instead of its current route past New Orleans. In fact, only an elaborate levee system prevents the Atchafalaya from having already drowned Morgan City. I’m having a hard time finding my way around, and it’s raining again, but I do see part of the levee system before I push on.
After fighting through the endless traffic lights on the one road through Houma, I finally approach Dulac, LA. I start seeing shrimp boats everywhere, parked behind houses or at landings along Bayou Grand Caillou. The town of Dulac itself has no discrete port, just a slightly greater density of boats along the bayou. I follow the directions I’ve gotten from Gary Graham to David Chauvin’s Seafood in hopes of catching him. But it’s after 5pm and it’s closed. Although I’m tired, I decide I need to see the end of the road at Cocodrie (crocodile), LA, mostly because I love the name. The drive takes me through salt marshes that are uncannily like those around Smith Island, MD, past fishermen cast-netting for minnow bait. Cocodrie is another small town on stilts, with an outpost of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. There’s evidence it’s been discovered by recreational anglers with money. (I later learn the most expensive property in Terrebone Parish is in Cocodrie.) It’s getting to be dinner time, so I head back to the only restaurant in Dulac for dinner.
May 12, 2012
Avery Island: http://www.tabasco.com/avery-island/
John McPhee on the Mississippi and Morgan City: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1987/02/23/1987_02_23_039_TNY_CARDS_000347146
Amos Moses: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7GyLr7Cz2g
Cripple Creek (RIP Levon Helm. Garth Brooks on lead bullfrog.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EisXJSsULGM
The end of the road, Cocodrie, LA
I seem to have dodged the big storms in the area as I leave Palacios, including the tornado warning for the stretch of road I was on just two days ago from Brownsville. I decide to take the back roads to Freeport rather than retracing my steps through Bay City traffic. From Freeport, I approach Galveston from Surfside Beach, where Gary and I drove on the beach last night. I am struck by how many houses there are along the shore; even up on stilts, they look pretty vulnerable to wind and water. I cross the bridge to the western part of Galveston Island, which has quite a bit of newish development, also all on stilts. This part of the island feels more like a typical coastal resort than the city that I know is on the east side. You can buy a house or condo here cheap, at least compared to pre-bubble prices.
I get to Galveston pretty late, and head for Katie’s Seafood Market at the waterfront. I’ve been told to look for Buddy Guindon, the owner, but he’s in Las Vegas. I take some shots of the seafood counter (all local shrimp and fish except for the tilapia and one farmed salmon, and all whole fish), and then walk around the small dock area. The boats I see are small inshore shrimpers. About 25 or so are in the harbor, which doesn’t have slips for that many more. There’s a restaurant right next to the dock, Joe’s Crab Shack (“Eat at Joe’s”), with a great view of the harbor. I ask at the market where to get good local seafood (always a good idea), and am advised to go to Olympia’s, the next restaurant down from Joe’s. Olympia’s is also out at the seawall, near my hotel, and the prices there are a little cheaper. I decide that my restaurant research doesn’t require me to eat at the nearest restaurant if it’s a chain with branches in Maryland, and head to my hotel. It’s a short walk along the seawall to the restaurant, with a stiff headwind. I’ve just finished Isaac’s Storm, a book about the devastating 1900 hurricane. I’m seeing Galveston in a completely new light, hyperaware of wind and tide and elevation. On the way back from Olympia’s, it’s dark and spitting rain, and the wind’s picked up. I’m glad I’m only here during ordinary weather.
May 10, 2012
Isaac’s Storm: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/isaacsstorm/
good surfing weather
First let’s deal with the clichés. Yes, everything is bigger in Texas. I’ve been driving forever and I’ve only covered a small part of the map. I don’t think it’s fair that they put all of Texas on one map, just like for Maryland and Delaware. It leads you to think it’s not far from here to there. It is. And yes, there’s nothing in between here and there, it’s interesting country, but spectacularly unphotogenic. And yes, pretty much every vehicle is a pickup.
Fortunately, other clichés are true as well. The roads have straight sections that stretch for miles. Two lane highways have speed limits of 70. Even “farm roads” with curves have speed limits of 65 or 60. So you can cover some ground in a hurry.
But one stereotype is far from reality. Texas is not all tumbleweeds and desert. I’m driving on the Texas Tropical Trail. When I went outside this morning, it felt like the warm humid breeze of Belize City. There are palm trees everywhere. After I drive for a while, the palm trees and hurricane evacuation signs give way to cactus and yucca among the trees, but this is still wet country.
After a couple hours of sharing the road with no one, I cut down towards the coast and Corpus Christi. The palm trees and traffic return as the highway cuts through suburban strip malls. Without the palm trees I could be anywhere. I decide I’ve got time to take a detour to Port Aransas, and cross to Mustang Island, where traffic thins out again. Port Aransas has had some seemingly recent beach development, but it’s relatively modest. I don’t have time to investigate further, so happily take the Texas Highway ferry to Aransas Pass, back on the mainland (although still mostly water). From here it’s an easy drive over some bridges across bays I haven’t heard of to Palacios, TX. I’m here for just a quick lunch on my way to Freeport, planning to return tomorrow, so more about it then. No problem finding the port, the shrimp boat outriggers are the tallest things around. Unfortunately my first and second choices for lunch are closed (the second rather permanently it appears). Fortunately I find a third choice.
After a quick lunch I call Gary Graham who I’m planning to meet in Freeport. He suggests that I meet him at his place since it’s more or less on the way, and that way we can drive down together. After what will have been about six hours of driving, that sounds good to me. He gives me detailed directions, and challenges my GPS to match them. Fortunately both sets turn out to be accurate, and I arrive at Gary’s in the late afternoon.
May 9, 2012
Lunch at the Icehouse Restaurant, near the Port of Brownsville. The Icehouse might have been one once, no windows and basic Texas bar ambience. Fried local shrimp, home-made batter, light not heavy. Two bite shrimp, very tasty, cooked just right—not mushy, not rubbery. Oysters and stuffed crab also on the menu. The only fish is Alaskan pollock. (Good nacho appetizers. Charles Burnell: You like those jalapenos? Most Yankees don’t seem to like spicy food.)
Dinner at Joe’s Oyster Bar in Port Isabel. Although the restaurant index suggests Port Isabel is a tourist town, it’s clearly just spillover from the real tourist town, South Padre Island. Joe’s menu features home-made flounder ceviche, simple and tasty. I opt for the seafood platter, with flounder, shrimp, oysters, and stuffed crab. The fried food is excellent, shrimp especially so, lightly battered and cooked just right. It’s great being able to eat shrimp with taste. The stuffed crab is basically stuffing with crab flavoring, reminding me that I never have liked stuff crab much. I ask where the flounder comes from, and am told from Port Arroyo, about 25 miles up the coast. I’m not sure how they catch it, as I’ve never heard anything about Gulf flounder. The owner is proud of the fact that their food is all home-made, as well he should be, and I’m not inclined to ask too many questions.
May 8, 2012
“And then the anchor chain snapped.” “What!” bursts involuntarily from my mouth. I’m watching the face of Fred Feurtado, 55-year veteran shrimper in Brownsville, originally from Honduras. He’s got a half smile on his face. We’re listening to Charles Burnell tell the story of Fred’s ill-conceived solo trip in a 68-foot wooden boat across the Gulf from Mexico in 1989. Charles is the natural story-teller; Fred nods and occasionally corrects. Charles gets to tell the story since the shrimp Fred was supposed to be delivering were for him. This freak April storm sank 13 boats and killed 13 fishermen; Fred is lucky to be alive. The story has particular power right now since I’m reading “Isaac’s Storm,” about the Galveston hurricane of 1900.
I’m sitting over lunch with Charles, Fred, Ralph Cowen (a Brownsville Port Commissioner), and Tony Reisinger, from Texas Sea Grant. Tony is a bit frustrated with the conversation, which has meandered from the history of shrimping in the area, to Mexican history, to minor scandals associated with the port, to the current sad and rather dangerous state of affairs just across the border in Mexico. Tony wants to deliver what I’ve asked for, which is the history of shrimping in Brownsville. I’m fine with the conversation as it develops. Even with detours into the touchy subject of sea turtle bycatch (skimmer trawls in Louisiana are going to be required to use TEDs, lots of wondering how that will go over) and occasional sharply pointed questions from Fred about whether or not I’m one of them radical environmentalists. I point out that I’m eating shrimp, which seems a satisfactory answer.
It was Charles Burnell’s father who started shrimping in Brownsville back in the 30s. In those days, they got a penny a pound for shrimp caught by trawling with a hand-pulled net at the rear of the boat. You could count on 1000 pounds in a day. (You do the math.)They fished for white shrimp at first, then brown shrimp after the whites disappeared. (Tony’s theory is that damming Texas rivers made the inshore water saltier, which whites don’t like.) In the 50’s they shifted to two trawl nets, then to the current configuration of four in the 70’s.
We talk about marketing as a way to counteract the crushing price competition from foreign farm-raised shrimp. Someone raises the “Florida pink” marketing campaign, which is successfully getting a price premium for pink shrimp in Florida. But Florida is aggressive on spending money for marketing, unlike Texas; pink shrimp are in limited supply; and there’s a lot more disposable income in Florida. Heads are shaken.
Back to the history, Charles describes how Cajuns moved to Brownsville from Louisiana after WW2. He says they were angry at how oil exploration using dynamite wrecked their shrimping grounds. (Intriguingly, dynamite provides the plot conflict in the awful 1953 Jimmy Stewart movie Thunder Bay. In it, Jimmy Stewart, the force of progress, has to overcome the backwards Cajun shrimpers to successfully usher in the wonderful new world of offshore drilling.)
In the 50’s, after the whites disappeared, shrimping moved to Mexico, which had great shrimping grounds. The longest Fred ever stayed out was 96 days, dropping off shrimp and picking up ice. By the late 70’s the fleet had jumped to around 500 boats. Then Mexico closed its waters to the US fleet, first within 12 miles, then the entire EEZ. (Charles spent four days in a Mexican jail once. Although there’s lots of discussion about false arrests and harassment by Mexican authorities, Charles doesn’t claim this was one of them.) The fleet is down to 180 or so vessels now, mostly in Brownsville now, not Port Isabel like in the past. (Tony thinks it’s competition for dock space as Port Isabel slowly develops as a tourist town.) But if you’re still in the business, you can make some money.
Speaking of which, it’s time for Charles to get back to his office at the port. I’m happy to accept his offer to accompany him. The shrimp fleet is in “Shrimp Basin” (there are signs for it). Charles’ office is an unprepossessing building next to his dock. He takes me in, past freezers with shrimp for retail. His son, who’s active in the business (Charles is 78) comes in and a quick discussion focuses on difficulties with “H2B”, which refers to the temporary worker program that allows Mexicans to work in the US on shrimp boats. Charles’ shrimp have their heads removed onboard. They’re then frozen and put into sacks. On land, they are put onto pallets, shrink-wrapped and shipped to buyers as far away as Florida. Charles has an elaborate spread sheet system that calculates expected best price based on the history of his buyers and the size distribution of his shrimp. He also shows me the system for allocating pay among the crew. Captain and rigger (in charge of all the gear) get shares; headers (one or two) get paid a piece rate for removing shrimp heads. Removing heads on the boat and quick freezing means good quality, which means a much better price.
Charles family operation is seven boats, fairly typical for operations in Brownsville. In addition to his son in the office with him, another son is a captain. We talk some more about business, which is actually not bad right now, and then Charles offers to take me on a tour of the port in his pickup. I’m struck by the astonishing amount of stuff lying around the harbor adjacent to the docks and boats. This is not a place where neatness counts.
As I leave the port, I drive for miles along the Port of Brownsville, and realize that the shrimp port is just a small part of this place. I haven’t really seen Brownsville, but I am struck by the looming presence of Mexico. It’s not just the amount of Spanish I see on signs, but the way it permeated our conversation over lunch. Brownsville is a border town, with close ties just as you would expect. Although the shrimping fleet now fishes only in US waters, it was molded by long association with Mexico. Here’s hoping the troubles on the other side of the border recede and the close relationship that has been lately interrupted can resume.
May 8, 2012
Ralph Cowen and Fred Feurtado
Charles Burnell’s Shrimp Outlet
Thunder Bay! http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046425/
Google says it’s 700 miles on I-10 from Brownsville to New Orleans; Hertz says I’ve racked up 1350 on my route. The first leg of the Seafood Road Trip couldn’t have gone better. In fact, it’s vastly exceeded my expectations. I’ve eaten great food, talked to interesting people, seen new places, and learned an astonishing amount about fishing. Although I’m desperately, almost hopelessly, behind on my writing, at least I got pictures posted, transcribed my notes (those I could read), and wrote some drafts. I’ve always admired the ability of reporter friends like Tom Horton and Juliet Eilperin to go somewhere, find the story, and pound out polished prose in what seems like no time, but now I appreciate that skill in a whole new way. I’m going to save any overarching conclusions, if I have any, about the state of fishing and fishing ports in the Gulf until I finish the individual write-ups. I’ve got a few days before I fly to North Carolina on Friday, May 18. My goal is to get caught up before I start the next leg of the journey. We’ll see.
A few comments on logistics. I mostly stayed in Choice Hotels—Comfort Inns, Quality Inns, etc. Almost everywhere has one, and they are affordable, functional, and comfortable (with free wifi). My Chevy Aveo rental was just fine; I thought the mileage was crummy until the last day when I found out how far I’d actually driven. All the routes—both planned and detoured—worked out. The only glitches came on the last day. There’s an old line from Pogo (anyone remember Pogo?) about how Friday the 13th can ruin your whole week if it falls on Monday. Well, this time it fell on Sunday. That’s the day I stepped on the fire ants (and I had been so careful!). That’s the day I left the spare camera battery and charger in the hotel wall socket. And that’s the day I realized I had somehow booked a downtown hotel and not the airport hotel I intended—one day too late to cancel. Still, those are small things, and at least the timing was right.
When I started this blog, I described it as a blog of travel, food, discovery, and discernment. This trip more than delivered on the first three. Discernment is up to me. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey to see if I can find some.