Shrimp boats once docked in the small canal that lined the area best known as Bucktown. It was a picturesque little neighborhood off Hammond Highway along the border of Orleans and Jefferson parishes. There was a restaurant, Sid-Mar’s, a view of the sunset over the lake, a bridge from which boys in cut-off jeans still jumped, even at an age when they should have known better, and other restaurants on the bridge’s opposite side. At its best, that stretch of Bucktown was the city’s own seaport village, still rustic in many ways. There were no vendors selling replicas of the shrimp boats; no ice cream parlors or t-shirt shops. The business of the street was seafood; gathering it and cooking it.
In the neighborhood’s heyday, shrimp were mostly boiled or fried or served on a poorboy. (Barbecue shrimp, on the other hand, was an uptown dish, particularly at Pascal’s Manale Restaurant where the recipe was invented, though the shrimp are not really barbecued but baked and served in a seasoned sauce that begs to be dipped into.)
To imagine what the once-charming little road with the canal at its side looks like now, imagine Hoover Dam, a massive wall with various pipes and conduits taking control of nature. The neighborhood sacrificed its life so that the 17th Street Canal will never flood again like it did after Katrina. The new flood control structure has the charm of a rock but we’re a lot safer now.
There still are shrimp boats in the neighborhood, though less visibly. Over the levee near the new Coast Guard facility there is a marina where a small fleet of the boats is parked. It is good to see them, and they are charming in their own way with their net poles locked in the upward position, as though pointing to the crab constellation, but the setting just is not the same. There is no neighboring village, just an empty green space. I realize now that part of the charm of a shrimp boat is in the surroundings.
That can also be said of seafood restaurants with a view. There was nothing fancy about Sid-Mar’s but there was something really special, a screened porch that ran along the right side of the building. New Orleans is a town of a thousand quirky pleasures and one of them was being on that porch at sunset and devouring from a tray of boiled seafood chased by a cold beer. In the distance, the western sky over the lake turned shades of red, purple and orange before conceding to the dark.
Hurricane Katrina pummeled the restaurant which had survived mightily during previous storms. After a legal land dispute, the business moved away to a neighborhood site on North Turnbull Street in Metairie. The business tried; the customers wanted to believe, but it wasn’t the same. Missing were the porch, the shrimp boats and the sunset, all a part of Sid-Mar’s image.
Back at Bucktown, at least the descending sun will always be there. Each time it rises there will be more nets in the water and more bounty heading for area kitchens. There’s not the charm that there once was, but with the levee being better protected, neither is there the fear.