WHEN CHEF MELISSA Martin plans the menu at Mosquito Supper Club, there’s a certain amount of weight behind every decision. There’s the expectation of Southern hospitality that visitors have when sitting down to a meal in New Orleans, and there’s the inherent difficulty in her exacting standards about where every ingredient comes from. Then there’s the weight of more than 250 years of Cajun culture in south Louisiana, a lineage that is hers by birthright; and there is the urgency she feels because so much of what shaped that culture is disappearing.
And that is why, wherever she can, whether when welcoming her guests to a meal at Mosquito Supper Club, or using her platform to draw much-needed attention to her community as it recovers from Hurricane Ida, Martin begins with a story.
“There’s a little bit of theater in it,” she says. “We want everyone to leave with just a little bit more information about south Louisiana than they had before, whether that’s something about mudfish, or you’re having okra for the first time, or you learn that okra and gumbo are the same word, or that a gumbo can be made without a roux.”
In many ways, the food is a vehicle, a way for Martin to draw on these stories to elevate and preserve the way of life she knows best. On a recent night, as those of us at her large, communal tables cracked open golden biscuits to slather their insides in a butter so brown it was almost like caramel, Martin explained each dish on that evening’s menu. She drew laughter by admitting that “we had no cheese growing up as Cajuns unless it came in a green shaker can or sliced American,” and coaxed smiles at the mention of the season’s last persimmons making their way into the cake for dessert.
It's the crab claws, however, which she serves alongside pickled vegetables, that most reflect what’s on her mind these days: “We’re auditioning new crab fisherman,” she admits. “[Crab] claws since the hurricane are the hardest thing.”
Travel to south Louisiana, and “the hurricane” is shorthand for whichever one hit most recently. Ida, which slammed into the fragile coastline here on August 29, 2021 — the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina — was devastating for the network of small towns that feed Louisiana’s reputation for Cajun culture and seafood, places like Martin’s native Chauvin. Ida leveled homes and businesses, making the landscape unrecognizable to even those who know it best; and it destroyed many fishermen’s livelihoods by sinking boats or, in some cases, lifting them out of the bayous altogether.
So much of Martin’s work, whether it’s inside the kitchen at Mosquito Supper Club or on the pages of her 2020 cookbook by the same name, is about preserving Cajun culture and honoring her love for the people who bestowed it to her. When she saw firsthand the devastation Hurricane Ida wrought upon her family's community, she knew she had to try something to draw attention to what had happened there. Then, too, she looked to storytelling, focusing her efforts on a GoFundMe page she posted to her social media accounts, hoping to raise a little money for the Houma, Louisiana, foundation Helio, which put cash in the hands of impacted locals. To date, the fund has raised more than half of its $1 million goal. “It’s definitely a story of survival,” Martin says. “There was definitely a new sense of purpose for the work that I’ve been doing.”
When Martin first collaborated with photographer Denny Culbert on her cookbook — just days before we talked, it was named “best American cookbook” and “cookbook of the year” by the International Association of Culinary Professionals — she knew she was memorializing something of the people and places that shaped her understanding of her Cajun heritage.
“We told all these stories and this collective history thinking maybe this place wouldn’t be here in 20 years,” she says. “We weren’t thinking a year and a half.” It is not hyperbole to say Louisiana’s coastline is disappearing, and Martin has a story for that too. “When I go out on the lake with my father,” Martin says, “he’s like, we’re in Bayou Blah-Blah-Blah, or in Whiskey Pass, or Such-and-Such Island, and I’m looking around ... and all you see is open water. But people still know where things are.”
Martin calls south Louisiana “the canary in the coal mine” for its frontline experience of climate change and sea level rise. It’s a sobering fact to consider culturally, but it’s sobering, too, for the business Martin runs. She has a fanaticism about running a sustainable operation, both environmentally and socially. “We want to pay people differently from how other restaurants pay,” she says. “We want to have compost and recycling. We only want to be open four days a week. We want to be able to take a break as people.”
Those principles extend to the ingredients that are so crucial to her Cajun cooking, both because it’s better for the planet to source locally, but also because it’s true to the cuisine. But disappearing bayous and changing landscapes have forced her to consider what it means to serve Cajun food if its foundational ingredients aren’t around anymore. When hearing Martin explain this, the interconnectedness becomes starkly clear: The best shrimp come from inland Louisiana waters, but what happens when the fishermen who get the shrimp from those waters no longer have houses or boats?
“To create the recipe is almost some kind of sorcery,” she says, so her directive is clear: To champion Cajun cooking, she'll have to try saving the place that made it too. It’s not uncommon for Martin to spend her “off-days” sourcing ingredients, filling her car with local vegetables and, sometimes, fighting with a local company when she finds out their redfish is from the shores of a faraway African nation rather than the Gulf of Mexico.
In the end, Martin argues, all of that work pays off. “More than anything, I like to consider myself a curator, and I'm trying to bring the best of our farmers and fishermen together on a plate, and on that plate is a story,” she says. “A story of people’s lives. I can look at a plate and say, ‘Oh this is from the Poches’ farm, and this is from (shrimper) Lance Nacio, and that’s from Two Dog Farms’; and I can see their faces and know we’re supporting so many people. We can tell stories based on those things. That’s what gives me self-worth — to make the work feel like it’s worth going through.”
Martin is writing those stories one dinner at a time at Mosquito Supper Club, where meals are served in a true supper-club format, with a tasting menu served family style. It means, on any given night, you could end up sitting between strangers at one of the large tables inside the 1895 Victorian mansion that has housed Martin's restaurant for the past five years, and having your gumbo ladled into a bowl of homestyle potato salad by someone you just met.
“We’re serving elevated grandma food,” she says. “Think a ‘Sunday lunch at Grandma’s house experience, when Grandma shells shrimp and oysters and has a garden in the backyard.’”
At the start of Martin’s story — her own story — are the women who taught her how to cook. It is them she thinks of when she acknowledges a quiet vulnerability, always there, tucked in the back of her mind — a worry that she might not get this flavor or that perspective quite right when recreating her grandmother's oyster soup, or when she reaches for homemade stock over the bouillon cubes her mother favored.
“I want my mom or someone from the bayou to feel like they recognize the food. I know that sometimes means the dish comes out looking like it’s from the 1980s, but we don’t care,” Martin says. “We care if the flavor is there, and you’re going to enjoy it the way you would if I brought you down to Chauvin and sat you down at my aunt’s or my mom’s table. ... That’s where the best of Cajun food is: in homes. And that’s what we’re trying to do.” And whether it’s something on the pages of her cookbook, or on the menu in her restaurant, or in the lives of the farmers and fishermen who make her dishes possible, it is always what Martin is trying to protect and preserve.
Chelsea Brasted Writer
Chelsea Brasted is a freelance writer in her hometown of New Orleans, where she formerly worked for the Times-Picayune as an arts and entertainment reporter and breaking news editor. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic, and the Wall Street Journal. She prefers her drinks in go-cups, and there’s never been a cheeseburger she couldn’t find it in her heart to love.
Todd Cole Photographer
Todd Cole is an internationally acclaimed photographer and filmmaker who lives and works in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in many international publications, including i-D, Purple, Self Service, POP, 032c, T Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Style Magazine, the Fader, Art Review, and the Journal. His book "I'm Yours to Keep" was published by AndPress in 2012.