On Monday, September 11, The Crescent City Farmers’ Market and hundreds of seafood lovers lost a unique individual, a force in the industry. Clara Gerica was the flavor of New Orleans, and you know I’m not talking about her shrimp, crabs, and black drum. In her memory and her honor, I’d like to share with you a paper that I wrote for English 2016 at UNO three years ago. The assignment was to sit somewhere public—a coffee shop, bar, park—and eavesdrop; then, write about it. I chose to sit in Clara’s seafood stall at the Thursday market at American Can. This is for you, Clara.
Overheard at the Market
“I got whole shrimp, hand-peeled and deveined shrimp, crabmeat—special lump, regular lump, and claw—soft shells, drum, sheepshead and catfish. This recording goes off every three minutes.” Clara laughs, and her signature cackle can be heard all the way to the parking lot. The sign on her tent at the Thursday market says “Fresh Seafood,” but that isn’t all Clara serves up. Political commentary, philosophy, cooking advice, and family stories are dished out in equal measure.
“I had a dog looked just like that,” she tells a customer. “Part shepherd, part golden retriever. Best dog I ever had. You only get a couple of good ones in your life, and he was one of mine.”
It’s hot. Heavy, gray clouds hang low in the sky, pressing the heat down to the pavement. Clara’s royal blue, sleeveless t-shirt is wet with perspiration and water from the ice-chests holding the shrimp. Her long, brown hair is pulled back from her face and restrained in a functional pony tail. She’s an ample woman—full-figured—with a swarthy complexion. She is of a proud, Louisiana fishing family. Sweat drips from her forehead and she wipes it with a red bandana.
“They say cooler weather’s coming next week. We’ll see.” She hints at a distrust of the meteorologists.
“There was a decent breeze last evening,” a customer comments. “Felt pretty good out.”
“I live on the water,” says Clara. “The porch is nice. But by the time I get home, I don’t always make it out there.” She laughs again.
In spite of the heat, the stall smells clean. The scent of fresh shrimp mingles with the tempting aroma of cinnamon from baked goods in the booth across the way. To the left of Clara’s booth, dairy men discuss the laying habits of their hens. “Too hot to lay,” one says. “Not getting but thirty eggs a day. Come fall, it’ll be up to at least seventy-five.”
“Those are some beautiful shrimp,” an older man passing through comments.
“Sixteen – twenty count,” she says, “just pulled ’em out of Lake Borgne yesterday. Six dollars a pound, or four for twenty.”
“Wish I could get some, but I’m too long on the road and I don’t have an ice chest.”
“Hour, hour and a half?”
“I can pack them for you. Wrap them in newspaper and double bag with ice. They’ll be fine.”
He orders four pounds. Clara pulls on her heavy, blue rubber gloves and plunges strong arms the size of two large catfish into the icy water. The shrimp are weighed in a hanging, galvanized scale and dumped onto newspaper to be packed for travel.
A fortyish woman wearing a worn green t-shirt advertising Cafe Loveless Hotel stops to look at the soft shells. “I love these, but I don’t know how to cook them,” she says.
“Just like fish,” Clara tells her. “Dust them with Zatarain’s fish fry and deep fry in hot oil. Or you can pan sauté them in butter and olive oil. Me? I like them fried. Want me to show you how to clean them?”
The woman gets squeamish when instructed how to cut out the eyes, squeeze the swim bladder, and remove the gills and testicles. But she orders three.
“You want ice with that?” Clara asks.
“Got any redfish?” a grandmotherly African-American woman wants to know.
“Those are game fish—can’t sell ’em. I sell redfish, they shut me down and send me to jail. Years ago, we fought that bill and lost. Spent a lot of time in Baton Rouge to lobby the legislature. My daughter here was a baby. All her clothes made by my Grandma and everybody said how cute she looked. But it came down to the vote, and we lost. I said, ‘You’re taking food out of my baby’s mouth,’ but they still voted against us. Yep, we got the best politicians money can buy. I saw the white envelopes change hands with my own eyes. How ’bout some black drum?”
“Is your crabmeat fresh?
“Just picked it last night. I pick Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday markets.”
“I need a pound of claw. Want to make a crab and eggplant bisque with these finger eggplants I just got.”
“Sounds good,” said Clara. “I’d like your recipe.”
“I’ll just be making it up as I go along.”
“You got two good ingredients. It’ll be good. Some dishes you can’t mess up. Want ice with that?”
“I got whole shrimp, hand-peeled and deveined shrimp, crabmeat—special lump, regular lump, and claw—soft shells, drum, sheepshead and catfish. This recording goes off every three minutes.” The market fills with people stopping by on their way home from work. Clara’s laughter spills over the crowd and rises above the blue, green, orange, and yellow umbrellas of the market stalls.
Epilogue: Today I’m fixing shrimp bisque with my last pound of Clara’s frozen, deveined shrimp. Rest in peace, Clara.