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Smoking, Boiling, Pouring 

A Jazz Fest favorite, a seafood salwart and a tavern hold down the fort in eastern New Orleans.

Daytime brings more than sunlight to some areas of flood-washed New Orleans -- it also signals the daily return of people working with hammers, shovels and insurance paperwork to rebuild communities that remain sparsely populated at night. Some of them also work with barbecue smokers, great cauldrons of boiling seafood, beer taps and burger grills.

That's the case in the eastern New Orleans neighborhood around Hayne Boulevard between Read and Bullard avenues, pressed against the inviolate Lake Pontchartrain levee but within the flood plain from other disastrous breaches. The water washed up here as a skim, leaving most buildings intact but the neighborhood itself empty for months and still only dotted with returned residents today. On a single block of Hayne Boulevard, however, Walker's Southern Style BBQ, Castnet Seafood and the tavern Henry's House are doing tremendous business slaking the appetites of workers from the many sudden job sites in the area, returned neighbors and people living elsewhere who make a special effort to bring their patronage here.

Castnet has been a major seafood operation in eastern New Orleans for almost 20 years, and today it offers no clue that a disaster had visited the area and swept its residents away just a few months prior. On Fridays especially, with Lent in full swing, its busy fish market and sandwich shop attract crowds that jam the place as closely and restlessly as the live crawfish in its coolers. The smell of boiling in progress fills the parking lot and people wait on a picnic table outside or in the barracks-style dining hall for their orders to be bellowed through a loudspeaker.

The scene is more sanguine at Walker's Southern Style BBQ, located in a storefront attached to Castnet's building. But with only a few hands on deck to make and sell food, which suits owners Wanda and Skip Walker fine. The small barbecue joint first opened just a few months before the storm hit, but the Walkers' reputation preceded them and has been magnetic enough to draw many fans miles out of their way through eastern New Orleans for a meal.

For six years, the Walkers have been food vendors at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where they prepare their cochon de lait po-boy. With piles of succulent pork and crunchy coleslaw on French bread, it is so good and so popular that it is normal for the Walkers to run out before the last act has taken the stage at the Fest each day. The response has been similar at their restaurant, both before the storm and now.

"You can always tell the Jazz Fest people when they come by here, because they don't ask for the pork sandwich, they ask for the cochon de lait," says Wanda Walker.

Both the pork and beef brisket are smoked for about 12 hours during an overnight shift. "It's serious," she says.

The restaurant typically goes through five gallons of baked beans a day, and on a particularly busy Saturday they sold 32 "and a half" barbecued chickens, she says. In fact, she can hardly cook enough food to keep up with demand.

"I have the bread pudding, too, but I've got to ration it out," she says. "I can only make so much a day and if people are coming all the way out here in the middle of all this -- what? -- this desolation, then they're going to be fit to be tied if I'm all out of bread pudding."

Keeping provisions up is hardly the Walkers' only concern. Their house was destroyed in the flood, so they now live in a small, FEMA-provided trailer set up in the parking lot, returning to their restaurant kitchen to cook their own meals. They've been advised not to expect phone service until August or so, and Wanda harbors an overriding concern that the area will be converted to parkland or drainage plains for future flood-control projects in the years to come.

"But that's why we're out here now. You've got to make hay while the sun's shining," she says.

Next door at Henry's House, flood damage was minor, but looters took a much heavier toll on the neighborhood tavern. Still, Henry's has been open since the middle of December. Its door is wide open in pleasant weather, and both day and night the roofers' trucks and contractors' vans are pulled up against its flank like piglets at the sow while their crews sit inside having beers and burgers. It's a friendly place where folks share their stories unsolicited -- like the barmaid whose family lost eight houses in St. Bernard Parish to flooding, or the regular in the corner who might spontaneously buy a round for the house, friends and strangers alike. The kitchen stays open late, dishing out hot wings and chicken sandwiches and the house specialty, a hefty Cuban sandwich that's been known to break the appetites of the burliest workmen passing through.

At nighttime, the once-picturesque drive out east along the lake offers the bleak landscape still all too familiar in vast portions of the city -- destroyed cars, piles of debris and shuttered houses tattooed with rescue-team spray paint.

But look closer and there are the small amber lamps lighting up the doorways of FEMA trailers sitting in front yards and driveways. Second-floor windows here and there have the blue TV glow from modern-day homesteaders holed up for the evening. Out on Hayne, the beer taps are open at Henry's House, Walker's smoker is chugging through the night on the next day's pork, and the boiling pots are only temporarily quiet at Castnet.

click to enlarge Castnet, a major seafood operation in eastern New Orleans - for almost 20 years, shows no signs of slowing down as the - kitchen works to keep up with the Lent-savvy crowd on - Fridays. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Castnet, a major seafood operation in eastern New Orleans for almost 20 years, shows no signs of slowing down as the kitchen works to keep up with the Lent-savvy crowd on Fridays.
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