At the fraying tips of Southern Louisiana, it can be difficult to tell just how close the water is until you’re face to face with it. Standing on the dock out back of the Cecil Lapeyrouse Grocery in Chauvin, a fishing town seventy miles south of New Orleans, Melissa Martin points across the bayou to a marsh where several pale, wizened tree trunks reach up from the earth as if in praise or in penance. Small and lithe with long, wavy hair the color of heron feathers, Martin recounts standing around with one of the old-timers who stops in for coffee at the 106-year-old store each morning. He told her that a century ago, sugarcane fields stretched across that now soggy expanse as far as the eye could see. But today, the land has been eroded, most of the sugarcane industry has picked up and moved north, and what remains are sunburnt grasses and salt-ravaged cypress skeletons, waiting to be swallowed by the ever-encroaching water.
Over the course of the afternoon, as she drives down Highway 56 (aka Little Caillou Road) and back, Martin, chef and owner of Mosquito Supper Club in New Orleans, points out a dozen more horizons where land or homes, a dock or a bait shop used to be. Some of them have been taken by the organic shuffling of generations, others by storms and flooding; so much has been swallowed by the oil industry’s diversion of the Mississippi or the hungry, rushing Gulf of Mexico. Martin says that Bayou Petit Caillou, which bobs with shrimp trawlers and oyster luggers, and runs parallel to Highway 56 past her hometown of Chauvin, is arguably the country’s longest Main Street—a geographical point of reference that carries life in and out by the tides of the moon. These islets and peninsulas, and all the water that runs through and over them, are deeply Cajun territory. And Martin, though she’s lived in New Orleans for almost twenty-three years, cannot identify anywhere else as home. Her life’s work and her recently published cookbook revolve around the food born of these waters, the unwritten recipes that have passed through its kitchens and greased its Magnalite pots. It’s a tradition of Cajun cooking that she sees as vital to document—particularly at this moment when this ragged fringe of America has already, by many, been chalked up to lost.
For my senior piano recital in college, encouraged by my teacher, I took on an ambitious program. I opened with an elaborate Haydn sonata and ended by pairing a Chopin nocturne with his teeming Ballade in G minor. I also played the first three of Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces — intensely complex, atonal works that hooked me.
At the center of my program was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A flat (Op. 110), my first attempt at playing one of the composer’s visionary late sonatas. I loved Opus 110, which begins with a sublime, rustling first movement and ends with a formidable fugue. The work seemed to me to occupy a wholly other realm: elusive, mystical, beyond style, beyond era. Just playing it well wasn’t enough. You had to take listeners with you to its distant cosmos.
Long before smartphones, my father knew how to text. He wrote postcards.
On his office desk, he kept a stack of the tan, 5-cent stamped, blank postcards sold at the post office. The addresses were pre-typed (by his secretary) so when he got the notion all he had to do was grab one, scribble a few lines (always vertically), and put it in his wooden outbox. At college 2,000 miles away, I could count on one showing up in my mailbox once a week or so.
Of my heart
A missing piece.
It hurt, it hurt,
Oh, how it burned!