Louisiana’s marshland is one of the greatest stops along the great flyway down the Mississippi from Canada. Just a little over a hundred years ago, the sky would be black with flocks of waterfowl coming to winter there, or to fuel up for the rest of their journey into Mexico.
Duck hunting is iconic in Cajun culture. Most people we met in Acadiana were just two, or at most three, generations from having to hunt to survive. The hunt binds one generation of men to another. We heard stories of fathers, grandfathers, and uncles taking boys as young as six out into the duck blind to teach them how to read the wind and the water, to learn the ways of the waterfowl, to respect firearms, and how to clean and cook the birds.
Most of the story tellers took their first duck when they were eight. Men in their 70’s recall the moment as if it were yesterday; not just the thrill of a good shot but the actual duck, its breed, its color, the way it hit the water. It is vividly etched in their psyche.
It’s no wonder that the tie between hunters and the marshes is so strong–but every year those marshes diminish. We are losing the Louisiana wetlands at a rate of a football field every 38 minutes.
Long before Katrina hit, Roger and I were reading books, such as Bayou Farewell, about the threat to New Orleans and southern Louisiana caused by the mismanagement of the marshland. Top soil, which once replenished the delta region, was now washing down from Minnesota, and the other states along the Mississippi watershed, and being dropped right off the abyssal plain into the Gulf of Mexico.
Roger optioned Bayou Farwell in 2003, but at the time it was a hard sell. No one really truly realized what a single hurricane could do to the wetlands. Five years after Katrina and Rita, we were worried that people were slipping back into that mindset. How could we use our talents to keep the story alive?
We’ve been working in food and food is inextricably connected to the land. And food, in Louisiana, is connected to the land in an unique way. Creole and Cajun cuisine has it roots deep in the water, the land and the people of southern Louisiana. The slurry of land, salt and fresh water combined with subtropic weather provides a bounty of seafood and other wild food to the tables of New Orleans.
So we were thrilled when Chef John Besh showed us the galleys for the Gumbo Wars chapter in his My New Orleans: The Cookbook. We were literally on the same page.
Louisiana Public Broadcasting came on board to do a one-hour special. We organized a duck hunt for Chef Besh and his friends Drew Mire and Blake LaMaire as the first shoot of Ma Louisianne.
We left Chicago the day after Thanksgiving and drove down to Louisiana. Arriving on Saturday night in Metairie, we heading straight for one of our favorite New Orleans area restaurants, Drago’s. The waiting area was packed, but everyone was in a holiday mood. There was an LSU game on the TV and crowd had the aura of a large congenial house party. We had come home at last.
While the Drago’s logo sports a lobster, my favorite thing on the menu is their char-broiled oysters. They open Gulf oysters, slather butter and cheese into the half shell, squirt on lemon juice and sear them over a wood fire. I had a great photo of one of the oystermen opening an oyster with the flames leaping behind him but I dropped my still camera into the marsh while transferring from one boat to another. More about that later.
The next morning we were off to Cabela’s to find chest waders. It was walking into a different world for us. Roger and I have both worked for Ducks Unlimited and documented their success in securing nesting and feeding grounds for future generations. But we’d never shopped at a hunting super store before. It was overwhelming. Luckily we knew we were looking for: dry reed camo gear. That narrowed the selection.
We met Chef Besh in Jeanerette, Louisiana at Le Jeune’s Bakery. John regularly stops there to pick up french bread for the duck camp and we were documenting his provision run. Le Jeune’s was established in 1884 and we filmed Matt La Juene kneading two loaves of bread at a time.
We were on our way to Larry’s Super Foods when John got a call from Blake asking if we’d had lunch. Blake said we had to try the pistolettes at Suire’s. I didn’t know it but Blake was highjacking the production and I’m glad he did.
Suire’s Cajun Restaurant and Grocery is in the country outside of Kaplan, Louisiana. And I mean in the country. It’s surrounded by cane fields. It just a little old white frame house with the menu hand painted on the wood siding: turtle sauce picante, alligator po’boys, gumbo and the infamous pistolettes. Pistolettes, I came to find, are shrimp or crab bread dressing wrapped in raw dough and then deep fried.
Miss Lisa, who was behind the counter, is a friend of Blake’s mama. Mamas are the glue that holds Louisiana culture together. You know someone’s mama and you’re like family. Lisa hugged Blake like a long lost cousin and then Blake nonchalantly introduced Lisa to his friend who’d been perusing the shelves. That’s when all hell broke loose. “Chef Besh!” All the ladies from the kitchen came out. “I’ve got to call my mama!” said Lisa.
Miss Mary got in the car and came right down to the restaurant. When she saw John, she gave him the biggest hug imaginable.
John Besh is loved and respected by just about everyone in the whole state of Louisiana. Everyone we talked to knows he came back immediately after Katrina and fed every rescue worker and National Guard who turned up at Restaurant August for weeks and weeks.
John says his Marine training clicked in and he saw a job that needed to be done and he did it. He reconnected with Blake in the midst of all that turmoil and eventually, Blake came to work with John after he left the Marines.
Miss Mary went on to hug Blake, me, the cameraman and the sound woman. We were all basking in the outpouring of love for John.
In the midst of the love fest, a great quantity of food was ordered. Blake just kept ordering five of everything. When it came to the table, there was enough to feed 20 people. It was delicious. The pistolettes were savory and piping hot. My crew and I did the best we could but hardly made a dent in the feast. Blake looked at us with disapproval. “And here, I thought you all liked to eat!”
It was off to the duck camp. Roger was already at the dock, having loaded equipment and lights onto the work boat that would take us into the marsh. We stayed overnight at the camp and were up the next morning at 4:15 for a hearty breakfast before we were shuttled out to the blind.Soon the mist turned to a drizzle and the drizzle turned to rain. Perfect weather for ducks. But not for video gear.
The blind was surrounded by at least 75 decoys, laid out with an opening to invite fly-ins right in front of the blind. The guides we worked with were phenomenal. I’d been in duck blinds before waiting to film ducks. We’d see them off in the distance but they would never come close.
Chad and Ty really knew their ducks. They would spot them when they were just dots and be able to identify their breed and switch to that call. One would do the general call and the other would make the feeding chuckle appropriate for that breed. The ducks came in like they had a death wish.
Now you’re thinking, “What a horrible thing! Those poor ducks!” As an omnivore, I can’t say that. The chicken I eat was not free up until the moment of its demise. Death took these ducks by complete surprise, unlike the cow that became my steak. I think most of us would like to be blissfully unaware that animals are born to become our food. If we eat meat, we have to respect the the animals who give us life.
After the ducks were cleaned, we went back to camp to cook. Drew and Blake have this running argument about who makes the best duck gumbo. Drew’s gumbo is thick Creole New Orleans style while Blake’s starts with a dark brown, almost black roux and is more like soup than stew.
John, Drew and Blake are a riot together. They tease each other mercilessly. Drew says to Blake, “That’s not gumbo. That’s just dirty water. Dirty water wit’ some vegetables in it!” Blake retorts, “No self-respecting coon-ass would put bay leaf and tomatoes in their gumbo.” In the end the crew was the judge of who’s gumbo was best. We broke out the Abita beer and sat down to eat.
The vote split up along geographical lines. Those of us who tasted our first gumbo in New Orleans liked Drew’s thick gumbo. The rest, who grew up in Acadiana, favored the dark, soup-like gumbo that Blake produced. Once again it was a draw.
We look forward to the next shoot with Chef Besh. Joey Serrett of Lafayette has invited us out to a Cajun tradition, the family boucherie.