King of Crabs
New Orleans chef John Besh dishes up the ultimate seafood-gumbo recipe.
IN THE PREDAWN STEAM of a Louisiana night, I stood in a yard surrounded by catfish heads. The headlights of dualies towing fiberglass crabbing boats swept into the yard and illuminated wooden pallets stacked six feet high, holding tens of thousands of fish heads: eyes, whiskers, stringy stuff coming out the back. Men in baseball caps stepped out of the trucks, loaded pallets into their boats, and pulled away.
It was 4:30 A.M., and I was in the yard of Vincent Comardelle, 67, who supplies bait to the crabbers in Larose, a small Cajun town abutting Bayou Lafourche (pronounced la-foosh), a 109-mile, shellfish-heavy waterway that peels off from the Mississippi River above New Orleans and winds through the marshes of southern Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico. I was waiting to meet Ryan Comardelle, Vincent’s son and one of the top crabbers in the area, who had promised to take me out on the marshes. Finally, a white pickup pulled up. Ryan stepped out and peered at me. He was wearing a tight red T-shirt over a massive chest and Popeye biceps. Buzz cut, goatee, merciless blue eyes.
“You bring any food?” he asked. I hadn’t. He shot me an unimpressed look. “We gonna be out there all day,” he said. “I don’t like to share my food.”
Vincent shambled into the house—he has a limp from an old boating accident that ended with an outboard propeller buried in his back—and returned with a package of peanut butter crackers. We launched Ryan’s boat from a nearby dock and motored through a series of shallow, brackish marshes—crab heaven—until we reached Little Lake, which is no longer little, thanks to erosion and land subsidence. Southern Louisiana is sinking, and every year the salty Gulf of Mexico covers more of it, killing the grasses and trees that hold the land together. This is a problem for native shellfish, which rely on a delicate, finely tuned balance of fresh inland water and salty tidal flow.
A full moon hung in the west, silhouetting the rocket-ship spires of gas rigs and the bones of dead oak trees, killed by encroaching water. Ryan, who has crabbed for most of his 40 years, steered while his friend Reggie, an athletic guy sporting a Bud Light cap and a bewildered expression, handled the traps. Reggie was a little off, which Ryan kept pointing out.
“He ain’t exactly stupid,” Ryan said. “He just got no sense.”
“Oh yeah?” Reggie said.