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An unwrapped gift

McGee's Landing in Henderson Louisiana.

The Atchalfalaya Basin in Henderson, Louisiana.

I grew up in the Poor Man’s Provence.

That is the appellation columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson used to describe Henderson, a fishing community in St. Martin Parish, in her book Poor Man’s Provence.

She got the poor man part right—most of Henderson’s families eked out a living determined by the rise and fall of the Atchafalaya River.

Her Provence concept was a state of mind and I understood what she meant, but I’ve traveled through France’s Provence and Henderson does not look anything like the south of France.

Henderson did sound like France, however.

French was routinely spoken at Amy’s Grocery, my grandfather’s grocery store. (Pronounce it Ah-me, Cajun-style). Poppa’s store was located at the end of Hwy. 352, the last stop before the Atchafalaya Basin levee. You could pick up the food basics (Evangeline Maid bread, lunch meat, Mello Joy coffee) the drink basics (Pearl and Jax beer, distilled water), hardware, socks, shoes, a fresh Hav-a-Hank handkerchief, some marshmallow peanuts, gasoline and coal oil.

The store was also fully stocked with fishing tackle for the commercial fishermen who lived in Henderson or the weekend sport fishermen who drove in from Lafayette and beyond.

If I could take a part of my life and wrap it up like up a Christmas present it would be the time I spent in Poppa’s fish market, a place we called the fish dock. Located directly behind the grocery store, Poppa bought hundreds of pounds of catfish, buffalo carp and gaspergou on a daily basis. Most of the fish was sold wholesale to out of town interests because you can’t sell fish to a town of fishermen. The French flowed freely around the big scale that could weigh up to three hundred pounds of fish at a time.

A proud community, any number of Hendersonians who gathered around the fish scale or the store’s beer cooler were ready to throw down against Khrushchev back then. I felt safe that if a Russian submarine ever entered Lake Ponchartrain, a flotilla of Atchafalaya fishermen would boat out and blast the comrades with anything but brotherly love.

Still, I never, ever compared Henderson to Provence. With its numerous restaurants, honkytonks, boat landings, one stops, bars and camps lining the gravel road all the way to Butte La Rose, and the wilderness beyond the levee, I likened the area more to the Badlands I heard so much about in the Westerns I saw at the Jeff Theater.

Late at night, tucked deeply into my grandmother’s front room bed, I could hear the soft bass of Allons Danser, Colinda thumping from the jukebox at Robin’s Dance Hall across the street. No telling what kind of romantic liaisons and heartbreaks occurred on that corn-mealed dance floor. No telling how many ducks, deer and undersized bass were taken in the wilderness on the sly despite the best efforts of game wardens and parish deputies. No telling how many reckless boaters violating no-wake zones went unreported.

Henderson, my so-called Badlands, was left to police itself, and nothing too bad ever really happened except in the outlaw imagination of a kid who had watched too many episodes of Wagon Train. Henderson’s environment was wild, but its life was not necessarily wooly.

Before Henderson’s fish economy gave way to the crawfish business, my single most pleasurable experience was watching Lionel Hayes, Poppa’s right hand man, skin a catfish or gut a gou. Depending on how the customer wanted his fish dressed determined the level of seafood processing.  Naturally, most wanted the catfish skinned, and often with the whiskered head attached. A few skilled surgical incisions and Lionel denuded the cat of its skin and entrails in minutes—a thing of beauty to a ten-year-old boy. But the most exciting thing ever was to watch him wield the razor-sharp hatchet and guillotine the soon-to-be-cooked fish.

My grandmother often asked Lionel to choose the freshest fish for our Friday courtbouillon dinner. Now that’s a gift that is seldom seen in my current city boy life. Most folks today don’t remember what a wild catfish tastes like. I’ve been to countless working lunches and receptions where the fare is fried farm-raised catfish.

Mr. Dewey Patin, a master Atchafalaya fisherman who was still fishing with his son, Carol almost until the day he died at 98, was disdainful of the high-born farm fish. “Those little t’ings? Puh! You can’t do nothin’ with dat,” he told me in an interview when he was 94.

Fried farm-raised catfish tastes delicious, but there is no comparison to a big chunk of tender white catfish meat sliding off the bone in MaMa’s courtbouillon.

Despite the Atchafalaya paradigm shift, the catfish economy lives. It’s on life support in Henderson and doctored by the town’s mayor, Sherbin Collette. Sherbin, when he’s not administering town business, raises his hoop nets from the murky swamp water with wife Louella twice a week. They take only the channel and blue catfish.
Call in an order and you celebrate like an outlaw with a big pot of the freshest catfish courtb
ouillon this Christmas.

Sherbin welcomes new business. Call him ( 
(337) 319-5267) if you want to remember the taste of a natural seafood.

Wayne and Charlotte Huval of Henderson’s Courtbouillon Recipe

(The Hebert’s prefer to use a filleted gaspergou or a yellow catfish for their courtbouillon).

Ingredient amounts are relative:

1 can Ro-Tel tomatoes

Onions, bell peppers, a little celery if you like

2 small cans tomato sauce

1 heaping tbsp. roux

A fish big enough to feed everyone

Yellow mustard

Dash Worcestershire sauce

Salt & pepper

Season fish with salt & pepper to liking, marinate in a coating of mustard and a dash or Worcestershire sauce —set aside and prepare sauce before adding fish.
 
Fry down can of Ro-tel sauce with a bit of oil. Add onions, bell peppers, celery and sauté. Add tomato sauce and fry down. Add water and tablespoon of roux and cook for a long time…at least an hour. Add fish and let cook for about 30-40 minutes…don’t stir the mix too much or you’ll break the meat up.

This story was reposted from Louisiana-based agricultural and cultural blog LANote.org, a NoleVie content partner.