Grand Isle

It was the middle of July and we were taking a trip to Grand Isle, Louisiana. My husband Tom and I live in Minnesota, but Louisiana is where I am from. While I didn’t grow up on the island, it might have shaped me more than anyplace else. My Uncle Henry said it before I could, “this is home.” Right here at the end of the world—sun-soaked, humidity-ridden, briny and brown. 

We left on a Thursday afternoon and flew into New Orleans just in time for a nice dinner at highly acclaimed Peche, an Oyster Bar and Seafood Grill. Of course, we got oysters and a whole fish. We ate everything. Our bed and breakfast was in the Tremé neighborhood, a little away from the hustle and bustle of the French Quarter and other busy neighborhoods. Just a quarter of a mile from our doorstep was a pedestrian trail called the Lafitte Greenway. We took a nice evening walk there, hopefully burning off some of those calories! And we also planned our morning run on this route, a fortuitous discovery offering a safe option in lieu of the city streets.

The next morning we put in five miles on the Greenway, grabbed a bagel sandwich at Flower Moon Bagels, another lucky find there in the neighborhood, then got ready to drive to Plaquemines Parish to meet with some old friends. James and Alora Madere had been instrumental in planning our epic journey on foot down the Mississippi River four years prior. They had connected us with countless unique individuals in this last 100 mile stretch before the River meets the Gulf of Mexico. We met at their house in Jesuit Bend, eating, drinking, talking for nearly four hours. Their lives go from adventure to disaster back to adventure, and currently they are trying to escape the hurricane-prone Plaquemines and move to Natchez, Mississippi, but no one is in the market to buy a house below the flood wall it seems.

It was hard saying our goodbyes, but we had a dinner reservation back in the city. Tom and I got back to our b&b and set out on a three mile walk to the Garden District where we landed at Gris Gris for dinner. More oysters, more fish, more cocktails, oh and some gumbo too—all delicious. And we took some to go. On our walk home, we stopped off at a brewery in our neighborhood right next to the bagel shop, as luck would have it! Tom finished his beer and mine, and we played a board game (getting ready for more on the island!). Back at our room finally, we tuned into the Tour de France to put us to sleep.

On Saturday it was time to leave the city and head down the bayou, but first we had to get our run in. We headed down the Greenway towards the River this time, and walked through the French Quarter, then ran along the riverfront for a few miles before doubling back the way we came. Our breakfast was made up of leftover bagel sandwich and leftover fish from Gris Gris—anything leftover in New Orleans is still pretty good. 

After a bit of shopping, loading up on snacks and supplies for the island at Whole Foods, we drove through Audubon Park along the levee and over the Huey Long Bridge. We traveled Highway 90 the whole way until getting to Bayou Lafourche. Then we were deep into the sugarcane fields, passing the Raceland refinery, crossing the bridge to Highway 1. The water was high, and the shrimp boats were plenty. We arrived at Aunt Connie’s just after two o’clock and got to work on making turbinado syrup for the cocktail lineup on the island and blue cheese dip for snacking. After the others went to church at four o’clock, we all met up at Binny B’s for dinner. Wings and fries for me. It was a nice visit and we also ran into Uncle Hank—not really my uncle, my cousin I think, but more like an uncle. Family is thick down here, even when you live thousands of miles away like me.

We woke up in Larose, or is it Cut Off? I never know. I think my mom used to say that grandma’s house was right on the dividing line between the two towns, but my Aunt Connie’s address does say Larose, and she goes to the Larose Catholic Church, not the Cut Off Catholic Church, so maybe it is once and for all decided, Larose. My Uncle Van baked bread overnight, the smell was wafting up and around the house. Their house is unique along the bayou or most anywhere. It’s maybe mid-century modern in design, I’m not sure, but it has a central dining and living room that have a lofted ceiling, and those paired rooms are surrounded by a hallway that encircles the whole house off of which are the bedrooms and bathrooms and a laundry room, as well as the kitchen and den. It creates a very fluid, airy feel to the space, not to mention all the outdoor space that is just amazing. Tom and I spent a lot of time just walking the grounds exploring the plants and the plant ruins or hurricane damage. So many marred or uprooted trees, lost trees, throughout the yard.

As we sat down at the breakfast table, and Aunt Connie brought out jam and butter for the bread, also some fresh fruit, I asked my mom about the history of the property we were on. The Curole family has lived on this one long strip of land, from the bayou side to this back treelined parcel where Aunt Connie lives, since my grandfather bought it many many moons ago. I wanted to know how he came to own it and why. My mom didn’t really know. She was the youngest in her family of four children, and a lot of things slipped by her. My Aunt Connie had some information though. She said my Grandma Vic’s cousins bought other strips adjacent to this, so my grandfather Syriaque bought this one. The cousins were farmers, grandpa wasn’t, but they farmed his land as well. All of the land was in sugarcane. When my grandfather died, the land was broken up for the children, and eventually again when my grandmother died. So then each of the four children had two parcels. There’s been some trading, buying selling, some have stayed, some have gone, but my mom still has two undeveloped parcels.

As we were digging into history, my mom went and pulled out a book chronicling the history of Danos and Curole, the company my grandfather founded with his brother-in-law Allen Danos. There I found pictures not only of my grandfather, but of my mom as a young girl aboard one of the workboats. The whole family was in on the business it seemed, and the Danos family has carried it on into a multinational conglomerate today. An incredible growth story built on the legacy of those two men who sadly died too young. I read through the book at a fast pace, but absorbed a lot and was left with many more questions to take to the next generation steering the company today.

Breakfast gave way to noontime snacks—cheese, crackers, fruit, guacamole, Fritos, and more Fritos! We worked a bag of okra that the Madere’s had given us fresh from an organic farmer nearby in Plaquemines. Tom, me, Aunt Connie, and mom, knives out, slicing and chopping. Aunt Connie would have okra for weeks at this rate! We also watched the final match of Wimbledon with great excitement, and saw Djokovic lose to the Spaniard Alcaraz. Tom and I left about one o’clock and took the 15 lbs of shrimp and groceries in two ice chests along with our bags, driving down Highway 1 to Port Fourchon to see all the big ships there. We went to the end of that road and made a quick about face, on our way to Grand Isle, over the big bridge and down the length of the island to the entrance of the State Park. We decided to abort this mission, though, as it was already half past two and mom and dad would be arriving soon as well. We circled back toward the camp, made a quick stop at Sureway for some milk, and then headed on up the island. 

Despite aborting the park, we weren’t quitting the beach entirely. We parked the car under the camp, crossed over the dune, and stripped off our sandals. Just a mile down the beach and back, but this barefoot walk would serve well as reconnaissance for our run the next day. As soon as we got back to the camp, we found mom and dad already unpacked. Uncle Bob and Christina had also just arrived and were loading up the lift. It was just minutes later that Uncle Henry and Aunt Patty drove up, so the gang was all there! It didn’t take long to get settled in, and get thirsty for our first cocktail. Tom was ready in the kitchen to mix up the specialty drink for the night—the Creole Crusta, courtesy of the Julep Cocktail Bar in Houston, Texas. This one had a special “crust” dotting the rim, and went down a little sour and a whole lotta sweet. Christina and Uncle Bob were also in the kitchen getting the boiling pots on the stove. One was for the veggies and one for the shrimp. It took a while for the water to come up to temperature, but once everything was set, it was time to eat! The shrimp were delicious! Before bed, we took one last look out over the tide coming in, telepathically sending a message to the fish, “We’re coming. Get ready!”

The next day, we were up early and made coffee.  I got dressed for fishing and Tom and I went out with dad when the sun was just rising. Masses of pelicans were flying overhead, skating over the water. Tom and I had each a bite on our lines, but the real excitement was dad’s big 20-30 pound catch. The tension on his rod was fraught, but he managed to tease the fish out a bit, tiring it, then reel it in some, then tease the line out again, then reel it back in. Finally, Tom helped guide the line in, and dad walked steadily back to shore. Tom grasped the fish just as it reached the beach, holding it like a baby! It was huge! Immediately, an ice chest was procured, but the fish was too large to fit in. While the men were away getting these supplies, another fish got on Christina’s line. It was a big one as well. Her rod was bent down almost U-shaped. She passed the job off to Uncle Bob to reel it in, but he couldn’t hold it. The line snapped. 

That was enough excitement for the morning it seems. We all went in, had breakfast and got to cleaning the fish. There was a lot of debate about what kind of fish it was. Originally, we thought it was an amberjack, then we thought dolphin fish, eventually we landed on jack crevalle which we later learned may carry a toxin. Not knowing that ahead of time, Tom and I had, in somewhat amateur fashion, butchered the fish into 15 nice filets and several smaller pieces for frying. We had a great time doing it, and learned a lot in the process. Maybe we won’t be so amateur the next time. In the end, however, we had to throw it all away because of the risk to everyone’s health. Maybe we’d get out fishing again later in the afternoon, or tomorrow, and the fish would bite again—something more appetizing this time!

After that disappointment we suited up for our run. It was hot. The wind wasn’t as strong as the day before. We started out with a one mile walk then ran a 5k out and back, then walked the last mile home. I was running closer to the water, and as the surf came in, I got wet feet right at the beginning of the run. Come time to walk the last mile home, I was ready to take my shoes off and walk barefoot, enjoying the water. My feet weren’t the only things getting wet though. We also took a dunk in the Gulf to wash off the sweat before heading back to the camp. This became something of a ritual almost every time we were out on the beach—the sweat and the dunk.

Back at the camp, Mom was eager to have us back because cousin Kirk had arrived and was ready to take us out oystering. He runs a sort of “boutique” oyster business called Bayside Oyster Company in the shallow waters of the bay on Grand Isle, and we were eager to learn about his operation. We changed clothes, grabbed a quick bite, and climbed in his golf cart to head to his camp. Out in his boat it was a quick ride to his lease. We were helping take care of his friends’ oyster cages that were sinking. The oysters inside had grown too big and what were once evenly loaded cages were now overfull. Our job was to unload the cages, separate them into lighter loads, and reattach the cages to the line. First Kirk had to go get the sinking oyster cages, so he waded out into the waist high water and detached them from the line, attached them to a line around his waist, and waded back to the boat. Tom and Kirk did the unloading and reloading, parceling out any dead oysters, and sealing up the now lighter cages. It was my job to toss the cages over the side of the boat and tie them up to a line there. This was like weightlifting for me. These were heavy oysters. And the clamp to hook them onto the line took some serious hand strength to squeeze. If I plan on going into oystering, I need to start a new weightlifting regime.

Next, we were off the boat and wading in the waist high water tying the cages back up, or clipping them. Shake, align, clip, repeat. And don’t get your feet stuck in the mud or you’ll lose a shoe! As Kirk would say, “You have to keep dancing!” Then get back in the boat and do it all over again. Once all the oysters were dispatched and cages tied up, we were done. Kirk took a moment to wade over to his own oyster cages and harvested sixty or so oysters for us to take home as “payment” for our labors. These were some of the largest oysters I had ever seen. He joked that he had forgotten about them, but I think he had intentionally been seeing how large he could grow these specialized oysters. From there we motored over to a nearby pontoon carrying a group of oyster industry representatives from Calcasieu Parish. Kirk would be making a presentation to them about his approach to aquaculture in the next day or so, but he wanted to show them these extra-large triploid oysters he just pulled out of his cages. He had me hold one out in my hand, since it nearly covered my palm entirely from fingertips to heel. Everyone on the boat was oohing and aahing, taking pictures and videos. If he didn’t wow them with his words, Kirk wowed them with his oysters, but I think it was both.

Then we headed back to shore, stopping off to check the crab traps holding the evening’s meal. They were starting to accumulate, but not quite ready yet. We’d have a good feast that night to be sure. As we made our way closer to Kirk’s camp, a dolphin started following us, popping up in the wake of the boat! This was only the first of our many dolphin encounters on this trip. The bayside of Grand Isle was proving to be as magical as the Gulf side, and our adventure here was not quite over. Back on shore at Kirk’s camp, we watched his custom-made oyster cleaning apparatus go into action. A solar powered conveyer belt with dial-in pressure washing—these oysters were pristine after they went through what I’m calling the Curole-o-matic! I’m sure he’s got a better name, of course! And I would be remiss not to mention the taste test… Kirk grabbed a couple of oysters he had harvested just a few days before out of the refrigerator, popped them open, and handed them to us right there at the dock. We slurped them down and to my delight, I can say this was the best oyster ever. Or I should say the best, until I tasted the other 60 best and biggest oysters that he bagged up and handed over for us to take back to the camp for dinner the next night. I guess we didn’t need to catch any fish after all!

Back at the camp, we changed into dry clothes and made a run to Sureway for another round of groceries and supplies. This time it was lemons and moleskin and peanut oil to fry the oysters.  When we got back, Tom mixed up the cocktail of the day, a Preservationist—something of a salty bourbon sour with a twist. We set a batch aside for Kirk, as he was coming over later to boil the crabs. A thunderstorm swept in and delayed dinner. It was nice, though, sitting on the patio, feeling the cool mist, listening to the rain, another part of life on the island that feels written into the rhythm of my breath. Eventually the rain subsided and the sun returned. Kirk arrived, and he fired up the boiling pot downstairs. After drinking and snacking, the two dozen crabs were just enough to go around. I savored a lot of eggs, with so many females in the batch. We were also celebrating Tom and Uncle Bob’s birthdays, so cards went around, and desserts too. It was a good night, and a great day on the island.

It was already Tuesday. Our days here were running short. Tom and I woke up and headed straight for the water. The fish weren’t biting this morning but I got a few hits. There were a lot of dolphin sightings, including one that came very close to shore and very close to me. At first I thought, could that be a shark?! But then I realized it was a dolphin and calmed down. We stayed out for about an hour and a half, just soaking in the ebb and flow of the tide, the sunrise, the pelicans, the motion of cast and reel in. Then we came inside for fried eggs and some of Aunt Patty’s grits and sausage bake. 

After me and Tom were changed into dry clothes, we, once again(!), made a run to Sureway for a few items and came back to shuck the oysters for Uncle Henry to fry. We set out a tub in an ice bath, and got started each with our own shucking knife borrowed from Kirk. We shucked 24 oysters in 17 1/2 minutes—not record time, but decent considering these guys were quite tough and it took some real leverage to get them to pop. We shucked two more oysters, and ate them raw as a reward. There were 57 oysters in total, and we decided we would fry two dozen, char-grill two dozen, leaving nine for Tom and me to intermittently snack on raw throughout the day. We were the ones “from” Minnesota, and the only ones who ate raw oysters! However, at this point, we were not complaining!

After this little chore, we went on a walk along the beach to the west to where the sand runs into a wall of rocks. I’m not sure what happened to the beach here. I think I heard the others talking about it, and likely the land was lost from a storm, but I don’t know if they are trying to rebuild it at all. Off in the distance, I could see the beach pick back up closer to the Marina before reaching the jetties, though. When we closed back in on the camp, we took a nice dip in the Gulf and then went up to the camp for lunch. I made a remoulade and set out some leftover shrimp and other snacks for everyone. Tom and I also ate two more oysters just because we could. They continue to be delicious, and I continue to think everyone is really missing out!

I can’t remember if it was always this hot in Grand Isle, but the hot weather continued with highs near 90 and a dewpoint near 80. It was mostly sunny and the sand was very hot. Tom and I sat for a few moments after lunch and then headed back into the surf for a 12:56pm appointment with the fish. We spent an hour out there and didn’t catch anything. Afterwards we came back inside and got a little bite to eat before driving to Sureway one last time (or so we thought) to pick up water and some charcoal. The beach seemed a bit quieter that day, not as many people and golf carts running up and down. Absent of people, you can really notice the natural world around you. There are a lot of pelicans passing through, especially in the morning. They seem to fly from east to west along the coast. There are gulls and terns and cute little sandpipers running along the beach. I don’t think I paid as much attention to these things when I was young, but they must have left an impact.

Back at the camp, Mom and Aunt Patty were hard at Sequence all afternoon. It was game after game, very serious, and mom was winning most of them. Earlier they had played Mexican Dominos, and I think mom won that too! With all the stress of board games, everyone decided three o’clock was “wine time,” so I served everyone up as soon as the big hand struck twelve and the little hand struck three. Tom and I grabbed the playing cards and sat on the patio for a make-shift game of cribbage. I won. Then it was time for the cocktail of the day—cilantro margaritas. With the special ingredient of turbinado sugar syrup, these went over like hot cakes! Everyone wanted another, so Tom had to go to the store once again for more Cointreau. But as it turned out, we also ran out of Tequila. In the end, it was ok, because most people were already thoroughly over served and forgot about the need for more drinks. We were trying to eat down the fridge as well, so snacks were plentiful on the counters, and everyone was milling about. 

5:30pm snuck up on us quick, and it was time to get the grill going and shuck the last batch of oysters. Uncle Henry was getting the peanut oil going on a propane burner downstairs, and Aunt Patty was dredging the already shucked oysters for that. Tom and I had learned a few things after the first 17 1/2 minutes of shucking earlier in the day, and this round went much better. I broke a lot less shell, and really got on top of each oyster to break them open with—I wouldn’t say ease—but more finesse, if you will. Christina watched for a bit but said she couldn’t handle the tension of the moment! I had the butter and garlic simmering on the stove upstairs, the oysters were ready on two round platters downstairs, and the grill was almost heated up. Uncle Bob and dad had been working the charcoal to perfection. All the fried oysters were ready, so I brought them upstairs, grabbed the butter and a ladle, and we were ready to go! Oh, and did I fail to mention, Tom and I snuck the last two raw oysters in our mouths at the end of our shucking work! A nice reward for our labors.

I used a glove made for working the fish to place the oysters on the hot grill, then ladled the garlic butter in each shell causing the flames to rise up. After all the butter was expended, I closed the lid and set the timer for ten minutes. I checked them a few times, but waited the full ten minutes to take them off. They looked perfect. I had a little trouble getting them off the grill with some tongs, losing some of the delicious butter and oyster liquor as they wouldn’t stay quite upright in transport. Eventually I realized I could grab them with my gloved hand and keep them more stable. I had Tom melt another stick of butter on the stove, so we augmented the preparation for what was lost. Before I brought them upstairs on the trays, I sprinkled each oyster with parmesan cheese and chopped parsley. Ready to eat!

As I mentioned before, these oysters were massive, almost bigger than the size of my hand from heel to tip of finger. Everyone got three at least and another three fried oysters as well. There was Aunt Patty’s pasta salad on the table, fresh cut tomatoes from her garden too, buttered toasted french bread, and it was almost too much to eat! Somehow people still found room for brownies and ice cream afterwards though!

In the midst of all this consumption, we lost Tom at some point. He went down to clean up and got the fishing bug. He made his way to the beach and set out for some night fishing in the Gulf. My dad and I were a little concerned that he didn’t have a life jacket, but he made it back in safely. We slept soundly that night, and were ready to start one last day on the island back in the water.

Wednesday morning, another morning rising just before daybreak. Coffee and a splash of cool water on the face before suiting up for an hour or so of fishing in the surf. Tom and I were the only two who made it out this last morning. We were savoring these last moments with the water, the pelicans, the dolphins, the sunrise. The fish weren’t savoring it with us, though. We had a few bites, but nothing that stuck. It would have been nice to catch something, but dad’s big fish was catch enough for all of us, I think, even if we didn’t get to eat it. Next year, we’ll plan better, they’ll be biting.

After we came in, got into dry clothes, and packed up most of our things, it was time for breakfast. More of Aunt Patty’s grits bake and a couple of fried eggs. Some watermelon for me too, and of course more coffee. Another breakfast on the patio, basking in the blanket of warm air. We helped Uncle Bob and Christina load their things into the lift, and then saw them off around 9am. Then it was Uncle Henry and Aunt Patty’s turn. Finally, we loaded up mom and dad, and mom expertly packed the car—everything had a place and only one place it could fit. One last trip upstairs to lock up the camp and take a group selfie. We were saying goodbye to each other, and also to this place I call home. It’s not where I was born or went to school, but I spent time here in my mother’s belly and it’s where I grew to be the woman I am today—the water, the people, the way of life, the landscape. From the bayou to the island.

A few last errands before we could get over to New Orleans for our departure. A quick stop down Rosethorn Drive at cousin Kirk’s camp to drop off the oyster knives and leftover crab boil. He wasn’t there, but we took a moment to breathe in our memories of the day out oystering, a newly planted seed of aspiration. Then we went on over the bridges up the bayou to Aunt Connie’s to drop off the coolers and boiling pot, noting the two acres of my mother’s land that could hold our future tiny house, gardens, refuge, etc. if and when the time comes to make that move. Then we continued on up the bayou, passing the shrimp boats and work boats, crossing the bridge to the other side entering the land of sugar cane fields, eventually landing on the highway leading us into New Orleans. We stopped in town for a bite to eat at Donald Link’s acclaimed Cochon, lucking out with a last minute reservation and a magnificent meal with great service. Michael our waiter was full of information about the food and how it was prepared, as well as just a great conversation. The manager of the restaurant Brett also shared some stories about fishing off shore in the Gulf, catching jack crevalles amongst other big fish. He gave us his card and said any time we wanted to eat there or at any Donald Link restaurant to let him know.

Off to the airport we went. But first a detour to Audubon park for a short walk to burn off those lunch calories. Tom and I have a fascination with labyrinths, and there is one hiding here in the park. I plugged it into Google Maps and there we went. Parked the car, and set out in the heat on a mile and half walk centering on a paver lined labyrinth near the horse area at Audubon. We have a labyrinth about four miles from our home in Minnesota made out of native prairie, and run there regularly, stopping when we get there to walk the meditative circuit. 

From there, we got back on the road. Returned the rental car. Had a quick (or tediously long) shuttle ride to the airport. Walked. Got a couple of drinks at Cure, the airport version of a James Beard winning cocktail bar in New Orleans. Boarded the flight! A breeze. Landed. Some moments later, we were in the car, drove home. To sleep! What a trip. Let’s do it again (next year, as Uncle Henry said!).