A Po’boy Deconstructed
Andrea Blum, Special to Beyond Organic
March 28, 2006
If the ingredients of a sandwich could sum up Hurricane Katrina and Rita’s aftermath, it would be those of the Po’boy unraveled.
Beyond the layers of the iconic meal are the fishermen who live along the bayous, lakes, and rivers and swamp. They shrimp, fish, crab, and harvest oyster as a way of life. There are also the bakery owners who make the bread, the small town grocers who sell it, and those who come far and wide to the farmers market each Tuesday and Saturday to buy it.
Darlene Wolnik, director of the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans, explained the seafood industry was hardest hit because of their location along the waterways. But she also remarked that consumers are coming together to fight and to save their local food communities—like shrimpers, the bread bakers and the oystermen.
“It’s what the Michael Ableman calls relationship farming,” she said referring to the Canadian farmer/writer’s belief that going beyond federal organic regulations by eating locally and getting to know your farmer is the way to go.
I called some of these families known for their quality products and, arguably, their historical significance and asked them how things were seven months after the deluge.
Jason Gendusa’s family bakery has been baking bread for po’boy sandwiches in New Orleans for 85 years. His great grandfather who came from Sicily invented the 36” loaf in the 1920’s during a streetcar strike. He and the Martin brothers, who had a grocery store, designed a sandwich to feed the hungry and poor strikers for free.
Seven months after Katrina, the bakery is still without electricity and they haven’t baked any bread since August 28th. The water rose nine feet and remained, leaving all their ovens, mixers and machines sunk like treasure only to rust.
“Our biggest concern is that hurricane season is just two months away and the federal and state government isn’t doing much,” Gendusa said.
The family hopes to have the bakery at 20 percent operation within two months electricity notwithstanding. Even with this year's Mardi Gras that lifted spirits, he said, the city remains dead. There are no street lights and many have no power.
“At night, if you turn off you headlights you can’t see you hand in front of your face. You would never think you were in the United States.”
Roko Tvrdeic, 60, is a Croat who has raised oysters for 40 years in Empire, Louisiana (elevation 4 feet).
Hurricane Katrina destroyed Roko’s house, boat, his factory and all his oyster beds. At least five people lost their lives in his town whose boundaries are surrounded by water. He said they are still finding bodies.
“I can’t rebuild until FEMA cleans up the mess,” Roko said in a raspy Croatian accent mixed with Rhett Butler twang. “The recovery process in very slow.”
There is so much debris he isn’t able to bring his surviving small boat to the water. He said the sewer system where he lives would not be working for another six months so he and his wife Patsy of 32 years now live with their son in New Orleans.
Several thousand Croatians live in the New Orleans area. They emigrated from coastal towns on the Adriatic Sea beginning in the 19th century and are credited for the development of the oyster industry in Louisiana.
The soft shell crabs
Cleanup has been hard for Anthony and Ethel Smith of Jefferson Parish. Their boat was underwater for 21 days. Seven inches of sludge covered their floors and took months to clean. During the storm when the tide came up, it pushed their boat against the house. Then it sunk.
But they got it together. Teaming up with another crabber, Anthony puts 250 traps out five day a week. When Slow Food, an organization devoted to the small producer and to helping restore local agriculture, gave them 3,000 dollars last week (they raised and distributed 30,000 dollars in checks to local farmers and producers including the Tvrdeic’s and the Gendusa’s), Anthony was able to buy a cover for his boat needed to protect the crabs from the sun. But they have to wait to install it. The only welder remaining in town is booked.
Ethel says they will start the market in two weeks after the crab molting season begins. The Smiths are known for the largest and softest crabs around.
The crawfish, catfish and shrimp
When I called Joey and Jeanne Fonseca, the owners of the Outlaw Katfish Company in Des Allemands, Louisiana, Jeanne was up to her elbows in catfish and couldn’t talk. Joey was busy building a soft shell crab holding tank. He let me know right away that he had a “colorful reputation.”
The couple lives on the banks of the bayou 30 miles from New Orleans and has fished, crabbed, and push-pulled for crawfish in canoes most of their lives. They sell their goods at the farmers market.
Joey, with his storytelling ways, said the swamp bounced back quickly after the hurricanes. “Mother nature gave us a new paradise,” he said.
Although their hoops, traps and nets were swept away (without the means to buy new ones), the devastation mostly missed them. They were merely brushed by the storm. But he told me that other things are missing.
“A lot of the common folk and the customers are no longer here.” He reminded me that all the restaurants were closed in New Orleans and old timers and legends like chef Austin Leslie, are gone. Leslie, like others, was stuck in his attic for two days then taken to the convention center. He died last September a day after becoming ill.
The Fonseca’s are now looking for land on higher ground.
“Less we forget,” he said, “the ice caps are melting. I’m standing here on dry land now but where will my feet be if I’m still standing here 10 years from now?”