Near Morgan City, on a narrow strip of land on the Intracoastal Canal, where LA 70 runs along Lake Palourde, many locals had fishing camps during the 1940s and 1950s.
By Maria Russo Arceneaux
Near Morgan City, where Louisiana Highway 70 runs along the levee that separates Lake Palourde and the Intracoastal Canal, there is a narrow strip of land on the water’s edge of the canal where locals had rustic fishing camps during the 1940s and 1950s. For a small fee, lots along the levee could be leased by the year. For many years, Fred and Wilda Arceneaux leased one of these sites.
Under a couple of native trees, Fred built a one-room cabin with a small bathroom. Running water flowed from an outside cistern. The structure, about 30 feet square, had one door to the outside, a concrete floor, wood walls and a tin roof. Screened windows lined all four sides. They were opened and closed from the outside by wooden shutters that folded from the top down. When open in the summer, breezes blowing through provided the air-conditioning. On one end of the room, there was a kitchen with a gas stove and a sink. A couple of cabinets held dinnerware, cookware and housekeeping supplies. The rest of the room was furnished with a large picnic table and an odd assortment of chairs. Outside was a large brick pit for grilling meat and boiling seafood. This camp was built for good eating.
Invitations to a supper or a picnic at the camp were seldom refused. The prospect of sitting down to a newspaper-covered table piled high with huge, steaming blue crabs or deep red crawfish was too tempting to ignore. Sometimes, fresh, crisp fried catfish served with potato salad was on the menu. Although good food was a big attraction to an outing at the camp, the real allure was to relax with good friends at a peaceful, cool place on the water.
The most memorable meals prepared at the camp were MeMe’s smothered crabs, which won a blue ribbon in a festival cooking contest. The preparation of this dish was a family affair. Fred ordered the crabs from a local fisherman, who caught them in the nearby lake on the day of the cookout. At home, MeMe packed up the other fixings: white onions, cooking oil, flour, salt and pepper, rice and the potato salad ingredients. Beer and soft drinks were iced down in chests. On the way to the camp, they picked up the waiting crate of live crabs. Once at the campsite, preparation began in earnest. They opened up the camp and unloaded the supplies.
While MeMe swept and cleaned inside, Fred worked outside. He put on a large kettle of water to boil, for scalding and cleaning the succulent crustaceans. After scalding them, he removed the claws and the back shell. Next, he scooped out and set aside the rich fat found underneath. After scraping off the inedible parts, he washed the crabs. Finally, he cracked the claws, removing the dark crabmeat that would be tossed into the pot later. Then, he brought all of this into the kitchen.
Now, the prize-winning chef took over. First, she lightly coated the crabs with flour seasoned with salt and black pepper, while a small amount of cooking oil was heating up in a very large black iron pot. Into the hot oil she placed a few crabs at a time, turning each one until it was just the right golden brown color. As one layer of crabs was done, they were removed and set aside, making room for the next layer, and so on. As the crabs waited on the side, she tossed into the pot a mountain of coarsely chopped onions and stirred them.
At the right moment, back into the pot went the crabs along with a cup or so of water. When this boiled up, she lowered the flame, covered the pot and allowed the whole thing to simmer. Mouths watered at the tantalizing smell drifting out of the kitchen. When the crabs were almost done, MeMe added the bright yellow fat and the dark claw meat. She adjusted the seasonings and added more water, if necessary. The pot, once again covered, simmered for a few more minutes. On another burner, MeMe cooked a huge pot of rice. Guests were allowed to make the potato salad. They chopped boiled potatoes and eggs and mixed them with chopped celery, green onions and a mayonnaise-based dressing.
Finally, everything was ready. Dinner plates were piled high with mounds of rice covered with rich, brown gravy, several crabs and salad on the side. Taking their seats at the table, diners at this feast required lots and lots of napkins, because retrieving the delicious white crabmeat from those gravy-coated shells was done with fingers. There was a lot of finger-lickin’ going on.
Sadly, Fred and Wilda gave up their camp, when the Corps of Engineers decided to raise the height of the levee, but everyone held on to many fond memories of happy hours spent there with family and friends.