We also lived with shrimpers, fishers, and crabbers. I grew up shrimping with very small trawls that I'd pull around the lake with my 15-foot skiff. Every now and then I'd get work as a hand on a large trawler, 65 feet or so. In between drags, after we sorted and picked the shrimp from the other 500 species of critters that would be swept up in the nets, we'd boil shrimp in a big pot on a big propane burner. I can still taste those shrimp today—the best I've ever had, boiled by men who took great pride in what they cooked. Often they would add a few drops of Meyer lemon oil, which gave the shrimp an exotic lemongrass flavor.
I gave the propane burner and tank no more thought than as a means of portable cooking. And the old island's "Captain Manny" probably didn't think he was setting a trend by using sustainably grown lemon oil in his boil—it was what he had at his fingertips, grown from his land in lower St. Bernard parish. Propane burners are a way of life in southeast Louisiana, to such a degree that we just plain call them "crawfish pots and burners." Everyone has one, and the name denotes the most popular spring activity in these parts.
Years later, after Hurricane Katrina, it was the crawfish pot and the marshaling of resources like propane tanks, red beans, black beans, lima beans, pinto beans, and rice that saved my business and gave others hope at a time we'd lost it all. When there was no other means but fire—and even the available wood supply was too wet for any sort of reliable cooking fuel—those tanks made it possible for Alon Shaya, a homeless Israeli chef; Blake LeMaire, a former Marine Corps comrade; and me to cook. Alon and I made whatever beans we could get our hands on, and paired them with rice to serve out of Blake LeMaire's flatboat in Igloo ice chests. We fed people until there were no more people to feed: many of the people who lived where we were cooking had been moved to shelters outside the affected area.
After that, our crawfish pots were used to feed hundreds of workers rushed in to "turn around" our many oil refineries, which flank the banks of the Mississippi. And yes, we were all too happy to charge the oil companies for our services—not because we hated "them" but because it was a means to our survival. I never thought about drawing a correlation between the propane burners and the downed, and in some cases oil-flooded, refineries. In my mind we were doing what we could with what we had to feed folks and to employ people who had many others depending upon them to live. I believe God gave me a talent to cook, and I used that talent to do my part in providing for my family and the 120 employees I was responsible for. Today we have roughly 500 employees, and I've got six partners—one of whom is the former Marine friend, and another the homeless Israeli chef.