Wayne Hebert has seen plenty of changes during his 35 years of selling seafood at the Westwego Shrimp Lot, situated just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Hebert kept working though Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. "The oil just helps it all slide down," he jokes, but then says sternly, "We got shrimp all during the oil spill, and that's the most testing they've ever done on it." Now the biggest threat is an invasion of giant tiger prawns that are eating local shrimp populations, but Hebert hasn't come across any recently.
The seafood's market location was once a canal that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the River. The area became a gravel-filled parking lot after the canal was partially filled, hence the name. "Back then, there was just one line across the front, and we sold outside of trucks," Hebert explains. Whoever arrived earliest in the morning got a spot, which resulted in so much fighting that the property's owner decided to build stalls for rent. Today Hebert tells newer vendors, "Y'all don't know how easy it is now. We've got ice machines and running water."
Hebert used to trawl for shrimp but now focuses on selling. "Shrimping?" He says, "That's work. You have to stay out for for days at a time." He buys shrimp from docks south of New Orleans like Venice, Fouchon, and Grand Isle. Hebert sells 500 to 600 pounds of shrimp on a typical weekday and moves as many as 2,000 to 3,000 pounds on a good Saturday or Sunday. The shrimp is separated into piles depending on size and priced accordingly. His neighboring vendors do the same, and prices start around $3.50 per pound for the smaller size, up to about $6.00 per pound for the jumbo shrimp.
Of course, the prices fluctuate with the seasons. Along the Louisiana Gulf Coast, they're in the midst of white shrimp season, which lasts August through December, and then brown shrimp become available May through July. The brown shrimp from the cooler waters supposedly taste sweeter, but Hebert shrugs and says, "it all tastes like shrimp to me."
Although shrimp is the dominant seafood at the market, it's easy to find other items, too. Hebert takes orders for crawfish during the spring. "That's my season—crawfish," he boasts. "I love crawfish." He also sells a selection of fish, including red fish, tilapia, and snapper.
Sacks of oysters are also easy to find at the Shrimp Lot, sometimes priced as low as $25 for a sack of 300. Hebert doesn't sell them because it requires a temperature-controlled cooling unit instead of just ice. Plus, many vendors can't resist shucking the fresh oysters while working all day. "People just eat 'em up," he says.
He also steers clear of crabs. In the summer Louisiana sun they start dying fast, and it's just not worth it to him. When it comes to crabs, Hebert jokes, "I could stay home all day and not make any money instead of work all day and not make any money."
About the author: Meredith Bethune is a writer who of course likes feeling hip and cool at the latest trendy restaurant, but she feels most comfortable tracking down the best tacos, pizza, and barbecue. Follow her on Twitter (@MeredithBethune).