Wednesday, March 28

New Oral History Project Preview: Down the Bayou


"The seafood business is a strange animal to sell. You have to have it bought before you can sell it, and you have to have it sold before you can buy it." 
—Robert Collins

Robert Collins is a third-generation shrimp drier in Grand Isle—his teenage son, also named Robert, seems poised to take the company into its fourth generation. Robert inherited the family business, Louisiana Dried Shrimp Co., from his father, who learned to dry shrimp from his father, who learned to dry shrimp from the Chinese shrimp driers who used to corner the dried shrimp market in and around Grand Isle back when a portion of the island was known as China Town. When Robert was a child, they dried shrimp with the power of the sun, spreading them out on platforms. They used a similar technique with whole speckled trout, which Robert remembers his father learning to dry from a Chinese man only after the man got permission from the “Old Country” to teach him. The drying plant that Robert took over from his father was more modernized than that and somewhat automated. It washed away during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He recently got the business up and running again in a new location, with newly acquired equipment, only to hit a poor shrimp season. Robert could not explain why there seemed to be so few of the small shrimp used for drying in the Gulf. Was it an after-effect of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? Or was it just an off season, which happens every now and then? When we visited his facility in the fall of 2011, the plant was quiet. Robert awaited an influx of small shrimp with optimism. 

Robert's story if just one of the 15 that Sara Roahen collected for the SFA that document life in Bayou Lafourche and Grand Isle, Louisiana.

From the project introduction:

The people of Bayou Lafourche and Grand Isle, Louisiana, live and work smack dab at the center of nature—an aerial view of the area shows more water than land, and Grand Isle is definitively the end of civilization, tapering off into the Gulf of Mexico. They also live at the heart of our country’s most expansive oilfield. Steel structures crisscross the horizon, helicopters hum overhead, and drawbridges lift to allow crew and supply boats an easy path down the bayou to service and stock rigs in the Gulf. To the outsider, this intermix of oil and wilderness appears odd. Even ugly. But from the perspective of the bayou Cajuns (their more landlocked kin, the prairie Cajuns, live around Lafayette), the oilfield and nature coexist in harmony, the financial gains from the former funding good times in the latter.   

We set out, as usual, to talk with subjects who could help paint a picture of the area’s food culture. What we found was a set of people who necessarily walk a line between industry and nature. 

The Down the Bayou project will be published to our online archive in the coming weeks.

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To learn more about the part of south Louisiana that Robert Collins calls home, read “Chénière Caminada: The Disappearance of a Community”, a report by the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey 

To learn more about the history of the dried shrimp industry in Louisiana and see some great archival photographs, watch this short video that was produced by Louisiana Sea Grant