Report from the Gulf

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 10, 2010

It's a hard life Wilbert has left his sons, but a life he would like to preserve. The BP work will dry up in time. He's not sure what comes next.

"I think we're in trouble," he says.

SET ADRIFT Wilbert Collins’s family has held fishing rights for the reefs in Caminada Bay since the 1930s, through five generations of oystermen. While the sign still stands outside the Collins Oyster Company property, he hasn’t been able to fish Caminada or any of the nearby lakes and bayous — where some of the most sought-after oysters are harvested — for two months. Collins’s boats are working for BP now, helping to clean up the spill.

'Apples in an orange market'
The oysters arrived in brown burlap sacks. Hundreds at a time, from the Collins clan and the Fox family and a handful of other trusted practitioners.

And here, in a spare, concrete room at the corner of Toulouse and North Rampart on the edge of the French Quarter, the shuckers of P&J Oyster Company went to work: splitting the mollusks, dropping the oysters into small metal buckets, and piling up the discarded shells in a daily monument to the bounty of the gulf.

No longer.

P&J, the nation's oldest oyster distributor, has ceased its shucking operations and laid off two thirds of its 21 employees. An operation that was selling as many as 30,000 oysters a day a few months ago now ships out as few as 750.

Alfred Sunseri, who owns the business with his brother Sal Jr., says he has begun importing West Coast oysters of late. But they're a bit alien, he suggests, in a city used to Louisiana's small, milky mollusks.

"It's selling apples in an orange market," he says, sitting in his office on a recent Thursday morning, a blue P&J shirt on his back and a graying goatee curled around his mouth.

That P&J would even attempt to sell an out-of-state oyster speaks volumes about the spill's disruption of the local food chain.

John Popich, a Croatian immigrant, founded the company in 1876 and since then, it has dealt exclusively in Louisiana oysters. P&J's product has figured in some of New Orleans most famous confections. There's oyster stew, and that Depression-era staple, the oyster po'-boy — the meat fried and buried in a crusty submarine roll with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise.

But Al gets most animated talking about the baked dishes: Oysters Rockefeller, Oysters Bienville, and Oysters Mosca — the latter stacked with garlic, bread crumbs, olive oil, parmesan, and squeezed lemon.

"I'm not sticking my chest out or anything," he says, "but New Orleans has really done a lot for cooking in the country. . . . And the oysters come from P&J."

Katrina ran roughshod over many of the oystermen who supplied the company. But Al, whose family has owned the business for three generations, says the hurricane prepared him, in an odd way, for the present calamity.

Before the storm he worked too much; felt too burdened by the family legacy. The trauma of Katrina helped nudge him away from the office and closer to home. And these days, he finds himself counseling his son Blake, 24, who recently took over as plant manager, to avoid undue stress from the spill.

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