Donald and Melinda Punch
"In the seafood business, you don’t sleep much. Five hours is premium. And five hours at one time is really good." – Donald Punch
We co-existed with oil for so long. We’re used to it. Every now and then you had a little spill, but they always cleaned it up, and then you got back to work and you were good. In fact, some of the oil structures are some of your best fishing structures. We’re not against oil; we just want them to do it a little cleaner. – Melinda Punch
Donald Punch was a shrimper all his life, following in the boot steps of his father, until his own son’s Type 1 diabetes forced him onto land. In the 1980s, Lockport’s small, public elementary school didn’t staff a nurse who could administer the kind of care a child with daily medical needs required. Donald and his wife, Melinda, then a high school physical sciences teacher, decided to open a seafood market so that Donald could get to his son at school as frequently as necessary. Donald misses life on the water and dreams of once again owning a small shrimp boat that he could man alone, but Punch’s Seafood Market is going strong and provides a more stable income than shrimping does these days. And besides that, his sons, Travis and Jason, need an outlet for their crabs. Both of the Punch boys chose fishing as a career, after having spent much of their childhood and adolescence on or near the water, and they sell their catch to Melinda and Donald. The market is a family affair in an even broader sense. Donald’s parents, Hazel and Leroy Punch, also work there, arriving around dawn each morning to make crab patties, stuffed shrimp, and crawfish bisque.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Melinda and Donald Punch, owners of Punch’s Seafood Market—Lockport, LA
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Monday, September 19, 2011. I’m in Lockport, Louisiana, at Punch’s Seafood Market. I’m sitting here with Melinda Punch, the owner. Tell us your full name, please, and then, also, if you could, give a brief description of what you do for a living.
Melinda Punch: My name is Melinda Punch, and my husband and I own Punch’s Seafood Market in Lockport. We wholesale and retail seafood, Louisiana seafood.
When I first visited you, you told me the story about how you got into owning the seafood market. If you could give me that story, I think that’s interesting.
MP: Let’s see. I’m trying to get the right year. About 1990, my youngest son developed Type 1 diabetes. He was four years old, and I was teaching school at a local high school. And when he got to be the age to go to kindergarten, I could no longer leave my job and tend to his diabetes at school, so my husband decided that we needed to open something—open a seafood store—so he had access to the school while I was teaching.
You had to go to school and administer medications?
MP: It was medications, and deal with the lows and the highs. They would have him test his blood sugar, and if it was really low they didn't know how to—. He was actually the first person at that school that ever had Type 1 diabetes. It was a small school, so then they really didn't know how to handle it. Since then they have nurses at school.
Wow, so that’s a real hardship on a parent who is trying to work.
MP: It was at that time, yeah. My husband had a shrimp boat. He decided to sell it and to stay in the seafood business, but on the other end of it [Laughs]. Instead of catching it, he was selling it—buying it and selling it.
Before you opened the market, he was a shrimper?
MP: Yeah. I think if you open a seafood market, you have to know a little bit about catching it and pricing and things like that. If you don’t, you’re going to really get sucked into some bad prices. [Laughs] People will kind of a gouge you and everything. And we knew when to buy shrimp, and we just knew a lot about the seafood. That’s why we decided that would be the avenue to get into, is to retail and wholesale the materials he was actually catching before.
I’d like to bring your sons into it. They’re now grown adults, and they fish?
MP: Yeah. Travis is 30 and Jason is 25. Jason is the one that has the Type 1 Diabetes. That’s their only occupation, uh-hm, yes.
It got into their blood.
MP: Oh definitely, yeah. Even when they were small. I was trying to get them to go to school—you know, mechanic or whatever interested them—and nothing interested them except being on the water. They’re my main suppliers. They supply me with crab. Travis also has a shrimp boat that we have at the bayou side. Just the inside season.
Let’s start now with what the seafood market was like when you first opened it.
MP: We started February 2, 1994, and that was the beginning of crawfish season, and it was an excellent crawfish season; in fact, we’ve never had a big one since. And I think it was attributed to some of the floods they had in the Midwest. The water came into the Mississippi and they opened the spillways and they had gobs of crawfish. And crawfish sold like—like I bought crawfish for 50-cents a pound. And it sold for like 99-cents. It was just unreal, the price. When I first started buying crawfish, I paid almost $3 a pound, and it retails for almost $4 a pound, so it’s a big difference in pricing.
What about this past spring? The Mississippi flooded pretty majorly. Was that a good crawfish season?
MP: It did, but it was kind of late. It was late in the season. If it had flooded a little earlier, March, it would have been better. It was more like a May/June thing.
It’s interesting to me because I didn't move to Louisiana until 2000, and to me, the price of crawfish still seems really reasonable.
MP: Not if I bought it for 50-cents and now I buy it for $3. Now during the season, if they have plenty and the conditions are right, it might go down to like $1.50, $2, I’ll buy it. You have to make a living on it, so I up the price at least $1 or $1.50. And that’s not really that much profit being made on that at $1.50 for all the stuff you have to do with it after, and the loss. If I buy a sack of crawfish and I pay the man for it and I get home and there’s five pounds dead, it’s my loss; so there goes the profit on that sack of crawfish. So you have to sell volumes.
What are the things that you have to do with the crawfish after you buy them, before you sell them?
MP: Well the first thing you do is you have to grade them through and pick out the dead, because you will have some dead in it. And then you pass it in a tub of water and let them spit out mud. You have to purge them and clean them—wash them—and then they’re ready for the pot. Then you’re seasoning it. The seasoning is in the pot as you boil it.
When you’re purging, do you put anything in that water?
MP: Not at all. Most people put salt, but they don’t realize they’re killing them with salt. Salt is not a good thing unless you’re going to really take them out and boil them right away. Lots of times I’ll purge a few baskets ahead of time because I know my business is big on Fridays, so I might have 300 pounds already purged waiting to boil, and they’re not dying then, but if I put them in saltwater they’d be all dead by the time I’m ready to boil them.
How long do you keep them in the purging water?
MP: At most 15 minutes. They’ll purge right away because they don’t like the freshwater. They like the muddy water. And their system is where, when they breathe, they exchange the water. So the gills are like a pump. I wouldn’t ever eat a crawfish that’s not purged. Nasty. [Laughs]
Are there places that don’t purge?
MP: I don’t know.
You don’t eat anybody else’s?
MP: No. When I go out and eat, it’s not seafood. [Laughs] It’s steak. I feel like a Midwesterner when we go out and eat—“Steak and potatoes, please.”
Could you tell me a little bit about the boiling process? What you put in your water and how long it takes?
MP: Okay. I put Zatarain’s salt and red pepper, and once the water is boiling and you boil the crawfish for—I’m not really the boiler, so I’m not quite sure. I think it’s seven minutes. And then I throw ice water in. I throw ice in the water when I stop the boiling because when you throw ice in it, it makes the crawfish sink and absorb the seasoning. And then you let them soak for a little while, and that’s where I finish the seasoning. I taste them as they’re soaking, and if they need more pepper, they need more seasoning, I add it before I take them out. So the ice is the key; the ice machine is important during crawfish season. It makes them sink, and it makes them exchange the water again. The osmosis thing keeps going.
You mentioned that Friday is the big crawfish day. Why is that?
MP: I think it has to do with the Catholic tradition of not eating meat on Friday. And in this area, it’s like party time. It’s crawfish time, crab time. You buy a sack of crawfish and you can feed 10 people, you know, whereas you go to a restaurant it’s a pretty hefty bill for 10 people eating, and crawfish really are still cheaper than eating out. I imagine some people spend more money on their beer than their crawfish. [Laughs] So they enjoy it; it’s party time. I’ll watch the football season, and if we’re having a winning season, LSU or the Saints, sales pick up. They want to eat while they enjoy [the game] or eat before or after the football game. When the Saints went to the Super Bowl, it was great because I sold tremendous before. I got to watch the game because nobody called during the game. And after the game, it was a lot of business after the game, so it was good for business.
When you’re letting them soak and observe the seasoning—about how long does that take?
MP: Hmm. Five--ten minutes, because they do it pretty quickly because of the temperature change. The hot and the cold ice makes them exchange the water they have in them with new water quickly.
So they’re doing that exchange even though they’re not alive?
MP: Uh-hm, uh-hm. Yeah, the gills absorb it. That’s why people in this area like to suck the head of the crawfish. That’s where all the seasoning is at. And the crawfish, if you purge it, it’s just water. It’s clean if you did it right.
Do you suck the heads?
MP: Yes, I do. And I also like the claws. The claws have the seasoning in them too.
Do you have a preference for the [wild] spillway crawfish over the pond crawfish, in flavor or size or anything else?
MP: There’s a difference in flavor. I find the spillway is better. The pricing, about the same. I say about the same, but they usually want a little bit more for their spillway. But the spillway come in when the crawfish is usually on a downturn, like it’s gone down, so that’s why it always seems to be that the spillway is a little cheaper, is because it happens towards the end of the season. The spillway usually starts—they usually start fishing in February, but they don’t really catch crawfish in the spillway until end of March and April.
What is different about their flavor?
MP: Maybe a little sweeter. I’m not sure, but you can tell the difference. And also, spillway crawfish look different. They’re darker. And they have larger claws, I guess because they live in the marshy area and use [them] more than [if they were in] a pond. A pond is usually a rice field that they flood, and it’s lighter, so they’re a lighter color.
I was going to ask you to tell me, for the record, what you mean by “spillway” —where that is.
MP: We get crawfish from the Morganza, not the Bonnet Carre, although when it floods they do harvest some crawfish from there. That’s an area in Southwest Louisiana between the Mississippi [River] and the Atchafalaya [River and Basin]—best description.
When did you start doing the soft-shells?
MP: Probably about 2004, 2005. I’m trying to think if I had to worry about the soft-shells during the hurricane. [Laughs] We always base things on hurricanes. Let’s see, Katrina. I think we had to run a generator. It was either Katrina or Rita, one of them. I think by 2004 would be approximate.
Okay, and Katrina and Rita were in 2005. So, you didn't lose anything in those hurricanes?
MP: Maybe I lost a few pieces of tin on the roof, you know, which we don’t complain about. We just nail up some more tin and be grateful that we survived. And we lost business. I mean, you lost your sales. And I’m the weather person, so they called me: “Ma, where is the rain?” I get on the computer and look at where is the rain. Cell phones are great. And then I saw this Katrina thing off of Florida, and while it was off of Florida, I told them, I said, “You better go pick up because this thing is going across Florida and it’s coming in the Gulf.” And they listened to me, so they picked up every trap they had and they put it on land. And when the hurricane hit, they were all nice and snug and nothing was lost. But a lot of people didn't heed the warning, and they left everything out, so they lost all their traps. And a trap is approximately $30 apiece, and if you lose 2,000, you lost a lot of money.
Is that how many traps one fisherman will have?
MP: Well, my son probably has about 1,500 traps, yeah, and every year you have to buy more because every now and then your boat cuts the rope and the trap falls. The propeller cuts the rope, you get it hooked, or the wind is blowing and it just didn't pick up right. Or the water will come up real fast and it will pick up the trap and move it, and you have to go find it. And if you can't find it, you lose. So every year they buy at least 300 just to keep stock up to where they have enough to fish with. Yeah, he’s got 1,500 traps easy. My other one has about 800; he’s working his way up.
Was it a big decision to start doing the soft-shells?
MP: It was mainly my oldest son. He was interested in doing it, and he went and observed somebody else’s tanks, and he actually built everything you saw there. He plumbed it, and he put the tanks and the—you have to get saltwater to put in the tanks, so you have to have pumps. We have to travel 30--40 miles and pick up some saltwater and bring it back and pump it in the tank. And then you have to have a filter system for that water because it has a lot of mud in it.
From the beginning of the process, the fisherman goes out and—
MP: He looks for a buster crab, which is a red lined crab. On the fin it has a red line on it, and he collects those separately and he keeps them separate from the rest of the crab. And then when he comes in, he brings me those and I buy them for $1 apiece. And I put them in the tank. Well, actually, my son goes through them and counts them again to make sure they had a red line, because I’m not going to pay him $1 for a crab that he missed, or the crab might be dead by the time he gets in. He might have lost it, so we only pay for the ones that are alive and good red lines. And we put them in the water. The water temperature and the pH and the salinity are the three things you have to keep good in the tank. And it usually takes about a day, day and a half, for that crab to shed. And to begin the molting process. Once it begins the molting process, starts to come out of the shell, it takes about four hours. And then if it’s hotter, it takes two hours; if it’s cooler, it takes longer. So it depends on the temperature there, I think, the most. The salinity and the pH keep the crab alive better. And you pretty much have a pH problem, because it’s a lot of base. The gel they secrete is a base. If some die, it’s ammonia; it’s a base. So you have usually a high pH in your tank.
Now, when you say you have to go get the water—do you buy it, or do you just take it out of the—?
MP: I just take it out of the bayou or wherever. Wherever we think the water looks nicer. We’ll watch the winds. If there’s a strong south wind blowing, you can get the water closer because the saltwater comes in. If it’s a north wind like we’ve been having, you have to go further. You might have to go all the way to Port Fourchon for water, you know, and that’s about 40 miles, 45 miles.
And then once the crabs molt, which I saw—I saw some in process and some that had already lost their shell. It’s pretty critical to get them out of that tank soon.
MP: Yes, because if you don’t they’ll get hard again. They’ll turn into a white-liner, and they’ll lose the red line and they’ll get hard again and be snappy, and they’ll eat the rest of the crab. [Laughs] They’ll eat all the soft-shells.
How long does it take them to get hard again?
Donald Punch: Four to six hours.
We have a joiner. Could I just ask you, for the record, to introduce yourself?
DP: Donald Punch, the owner and operator with my wife.
We were talking out there about how somebody is checking those thanks all night long.
DP: Checking them about every two to three hours at night depending on your temperature, the water temperature, how fast they get hard.
And right now the water temperature is pretty high?
DP: Yeah, the production right now, in the fall—what you would call it—? Fall molting, the production is higher and so you’re checking the tanks more often because you have more coming out. And depending on the moon phase and condensation and pressure and all that—how fast they come out of their shells. With a good low pressure, they come out even faster.
And the season starts in the spring and ends next month?
DP: Yeah, usually around Halloween it starts getting too cold and they won't come out of the shell fast enough, and they die halfway out, and we quit until next spring.
It seems like it would be really difficult to fish for soft-shells.
DP: It is. Time consuming. You got to go cut little trees and tie them together and make a bush; put them out on lines. Some people use traps now, regular crab traps, and you bait them with a male crab that’s a breeding male. Not all the males are breeders, and you’ll find the breeder males, put [them] in the bait box, and it’ll attract the little busters into the trap.
I learned out there that they only breed when they’re soft.
DP: Yeah, when they’re soft. Right now, the fall season, is mostly females. So if you put a male in the bait box, it attracts all the females and it will make a pretty big buster catch that day. Now when it’s the male season, it’s kind of slow. They won't go after the females because they’re soft. And then you got to -more or less use bush lines to catch a better production of them.
You buy [the soft-shells] for $1 and you sell them for between—?
DP: $1.50 and $4.25. We make different grades depending on if they have their claws or if the claws fall off or not; the size. The big ones that have two claws, it makes a better crab. If he drops his claws, it’s a negative.
It seems to me like a really, really labor intensive process. I guess it must be somewhat lucrative, or you wouldn’t do it, right?
DP: Oh, my two sons fish crabs, and there was nobody close by that was doing it. And a lot of times they had to leave and travel down to Cutoff and Galliano and sell crabs, and we decided to do it ourselves. And we picked up other fishermen in the Lockport area selling to us. Like right now we’ve got seven or eight fishermen bringing us some, and sometimes we have up to 18 fishermen bringing crabs. It depends where they’re at and how many you’re catching. It’s taking care of a baby, you know, 24-hour-a-day job. You got to kind of keep up with your water. You got to watch what kind of crabs you buy and separate them for the tanks.
You got to fool in quantity. We have about 2,000 crabs in the tanks right now. Crab production is real slow right now, and a lot of fishermen have even picked up their traps. They’re not even fishing right now until things start to turn around.
Do you all know why it’s slow? I’ve heard that from a few people.
DP: Normally this is a slow time of the year, but this year is really bad. We don’t know if it’s something to do with the BP oil spill, where it killed off a lot of the crabs last year and made the production low. BP says everything is back to normal, but looking at the records, we’re half off from what we normally are. Usually this time of the year we’re turning fishermen down. We have too many crabs in the tanks. I’ve already had up to 6,000 crabs in the tanks, and at that point it kind of gets scary because you can't put too much in there and shock the system and kill everything, and within an hour everything is dead.
MP: There’s a limited amount of oxygen per tank.
You’re saying at this point you’ve had 6,000 crabs, but not—?
DP: Not this year, but in past years. Past years, at this time, usually we’re fooling with 4,000 to 6,000 crabs at a time in the tank. Right now, we got about 2,000, and I don’t know if it’s Mother Nature or the oil spill or it’s just an off year, you know. Production is down.
Has the oil spill—is that the biggest way that it’s affected you, is if that’s causing this crab shortage?
DP: Probably the Obama moratorium [on oil production] is more hurtful for us right now. People don’t have the extra money, oil field people working offshore. South Louisiana is mostly oil-field-related. You know, most of your jobs, somewhere down the line somebody is making something for the oil field, or oil-field-related. A lot of people didn't lose their jobs. A lot of them lost them, but a lot of them had their hours cut back. They were used to making 70 to 80 hours a week, and they’re now making 30 and 40. And without that big overtime, lifestyles change. And we’re not a necessity food; we’re just a luxury food. And with the paychecks being cut, well, it cuts out a lot of that luxury food. You can buy ground meat a lot cheaper than buying soft-shell crabs and shrimp and oysters and fish and all.
And then when you look at every time on the TV when you have an article about a dead fish or bird or dolphin or something, business takes a drop for a couple weeks. The more ads they put on the TV, negative ads, a lot of people look at that. A lot of people just say, “The hell with it. We ain't going to eat it. We’ll eat everything else.”
MP: We co-existed with oil for so long. We’re used to it. Every now and then you had a little spill, but they always cleaned it up, and then you got back to work and you were good. In fact, some of the oil structures are some of your best fishing structures. We’re not against oil; we just want them to do it a little cleaner. [Laughs]
DP: The only scary thing about the oil spill is the dispersant. From what we’re hearing, they can’t use it in their own country. It’s outlawed. You know, they can't use it in Europe and all. But they can use it over here. Don’t know if it’s a government buyout or what it is, but the stuff is marked “toxic” on it, and we can still put it in our waters. You know, and that’s the only scary part of the oil industry now, is what’s going to happen with that part. If it makes our products to where they're not going to reproduce, or if it’s going to be a long-term effect, or—. But if next season gets back to normal, that’s what nobody really knows. Not even the biologists, much less people.
MP: We got into the stuffing business because we had to have an outlet for crab [when] I boiled too many—so what do you do with it? Well, we peel it and make crab patties with it. Crawfish patties, shrimp—the same thing. So you try to keep your waste down to a minimum.
Can one of you tell me a little bit about the stuffing?
DP: Well, we take crabmeat, and then we peel onions, bell peppers, celery; food process it; cook it down; and we mix that with bread and breadcrumbs, the whole batch mixed up together, a lot of seasoning. And either we make it into little patties like hamburger-patty-size where you can put it on a bun and deep-fry it or bake it, or we stuff crab shells where you can bake them as a stuffed crab. Or we take a shrimp and we split the shrimp and make a butterfly shrimp and put stuffing on top and make a stuffed shrimp. We make little balls, little crab balls for appetizers, and we put some of the crabmeat on top of bell peppers and make stuffed bell peppers. Claw fingers—we wrap around the crab claw fingers and fry that. Basically anything down here that can get deep-fried is considered good.
Where did that recipe come from, your stuffing?
DP: My mama [Hazel Punch]. Mama is 74, and I’m 54, and as long as I can know, Mama has been doing that. Started off, they were selling out of the house, bootlegging, years back before the Board of Health come along I guess. And so I guess it’s something I’ve grown up doing and knowing about, and she’s still here doing it. She’s still in the shop working—74 and gets here 5 o'clock in the morning, 4:30, 5 o'clock, and got pots banging.
Now your parents work with you?
DP: Yeah. My dad has done had four heart attacks and strokes and bypasses and several stints, and we say he’s got nine lives. I don’t know how many he had, but he got more than one cat in him, I believe. But he’s here every morning. He says he’s here to keep the ladies on track. He’s the boss. I think they keep him on track more or less, but he’s here every morning at 4:30--5 o'clock. Some days we got to tell him to go home, it’s time to go get some rest, you know—5:00--6 o'clock [p.m.], he’s still here. We kind of work in shifts. They come early in the morning. The crab pickers come in early, and they’ll start making the stuffing. The crab pickers go in the other room and they pick the crabs, and usually they’ll finish anywhere from 2:00 to 3 o'clock [p.m.]. You try to get through it, the processing. I’ll go ahead, 8:00--9 o'clock, and start doing all the other work around the shop—the buying and selling and ordering stuff and all. My wife runs to pick up the crawfish, and I’ll stick around and handle the live crawfish and get ready for the boiling in the afternoon. Normally we got crawfish and crabs that come out of the pot at 4:30, and by 7:00 we quit and finish cleaning up. Sometimes 8:00--9 o'clock, we’re getting out of the shop.
Between 4:30 and 7:00, you have a lot of customers for the boil?
DP: The boil, yeah. That’s normally knock-off time. Most of the people in this area work in the shipyards and all, and they start knocking off between 4:00 and 5 o'clock. So that’s why I try to have all our product hot in the afternoon. We’re not on the highway; we’re down the street, so we’re not seeing thru-traffic. It’s just local business, and we have people that know where we’re at.
I wanted to ask you about your crawfish bisque, because I tried some of that the last time I was here. It was delicious. Whose recipe is that?
DP: My mom’s. Mama basically showed us all how to cook. And it’s something between her and her sister and friends and all. One started a recipe, and in three years this one changed it a little bit, and everybody has got a little different touch to it, and when they’re stirring the pot they add something else—a little salt or a little pepper, or—
MP: It was just the gravy with the ground meat in it. It didn't have the meatballs in it.
DP: Yeah, one time they used to clean the crawfish heads and put the crawfish stuffing in the heads, but it’s so time consuming to clean the heads that it’s not profitable to sell it. So we make some crawfish meatballs, and we bake them so they don’t fall apart, and then we put them in our gravy instead of the head. We don’t make soups and bisque. We make gravies. [Laughs] Everything has a gravy.
She puts the ground-up crawfish meat in the gravy?
DP: Yeah. It’s a different texture. I prefer the crawfish ground-up [rather] than whole crawfish. It gives it a different texture. A different flavor even.
Does that taste like the bisque you had growing up?
DP: Yeah, because my mom always made it and she still makes it. Just, as they’re getting older they don’t like as much salt and pepper, so when they turn their back I spice it up like I like it. [Laughs]
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