Go nutty for seeds harvested in Des Allemands swamp
By Jerald Horst, Contributing writer
Special to the Herald-Guide - Jul 03, 2014
Those fields of lily pads are more than just fish magnets — they’re a source of some of great food. Here’s how one Des Allemands resident takes advantage of the bounty.
In fact, in some places the water was invisible and the plants were chest high to the boat operator.
The umbrella-like leaves on the big plants were fully 3 feet across. Scattered between the huge leaves were cylindrical seed pods 6 inches across. Tall stems held the pods 3 feet over the water.
Those pods full of edible peanut-shaped seeds were the target for Joey Fonseca.
The surface-drive motor was getting a real serious workout — alternately grinding and roaring. This is just what the Boat Doctor ordered, I thought as I watched Fonseca practicing his version of fun.
The Boat Doctor is Andy Johnston, co-owner with his father Hank of The Boat Doctor Inc. in Metairie, a major dealer of shallow water boats and surface drive motors used mostly by duck hunters.
Johnston not only sells new equipment, he repairs what hunters already own. Either of the father-son pair will roll their eyes at the mention of mud motors sitting in garages.
“The biggest problem we see year after year,” said the elder Johnston with a note of resignation, “is that hunters wait until the week before the season to check out their boat. Then it’s too late to do anything.”
“Flat tires, dead batteries,” nodded Andy, “stale gas, contaminated tanks, electrical contacts corroded.”
“These boats are subject to neglect of all kinds,” Hank went on. “Hunters concentrate on their hunting season, and then put the boats in a garage, if you’re lucky, in January and ignore them until teal season.
“If you’re going to teal hunt, the boat needs to be operated no later than Aug. 1.”
That means July — and July, Fonseca told, me is prime time for that Cajun delicacy known as graine à volers, which Fonseca pronounced “GRAN ah volays.”
They grow in some of the thickest, most-densely vegetated spots that will float a boat — perfect for testing a mud motor.
Joey Fonseca is a commercial fisherman from Des Allemands, a tiny fishing community astraddle the St. Charles-Lafourche parish line. Everyone there relishes the nut-like seeds and looks forward to July.
“I go once or twice a year, sometimes three or four times,” he admitted. “My wife Jeanie likes to eat them and she gives a few to favored customers.”
Jeanie Fonseca sells some of her husband’s seafood catch at farmers markets in various towns.
Our destination, Fonseca told me as we left his home on Bayou Des Allemands, was Lake Boeuf in northern Lafourche Parish.
After launching in tiny Theriot Canal in Raceland, Fonseca buzzed the surface drive-powered boat away from civilization. The sugar cane fields on the Lafourche ridge gave way to a maple-willow dominated swamp.
Then the trees became more scattered and the canal threaded through a vibrant, green freshwater marsh fringed in the distance by groves of cypress trees. A row of pilings driven across the mouth of the canal’s entrance into the lake prevented the lake’s flotant marsh vegetation from drifting into and plugging the mouth of the canal.
The lake was a tangled riot of succulent green vegetation of a hundred different kinds. Most striking were the patches of graine à voler — or American lotus, as they are more properly known.
Their leaves were huge, but their flowers were eye-popping. Perched on stalks 3 feet over the water, they were fully 12 inches in diameter and a soft, pastel yellow.
Fonseca set right to work, explaining that he wanted to get as many picked as he could before it got hot. Standing erect in the stern of the boat, he held the motor tiller in one hand and used the other hand to grab and break off seed pods that he judged to be at the right stage of maturity.
He tossed the pods to the bow of the boat without breaking his picking motion.
Prime targets were pods in which most of the 20 to 30 seeds were not quite fully formed. At this stage, the seeds are tender and milky, and can be eaten out of hand or cooked. “The biggest mistake you can make is to pick pods with too many immature seeds in them,” Fonseca explained.
Those seed shells will be poorly filled or empty.
As the seeds mature, they darken in color to near black.
“These seeds are hard to crack open,” he said. “Also, the seed pods get tough, so the seeds are hard to get out of them.
“But they have a strong, nutty taste. Some people pass these by, but I like some of them because of their full taste.”
To my taste buds they were indeed nutty — almost like a hazelnut, but with tannic overtones of bitterness.
Seed pods of all stages of maturity were present, so it wasn’t just a matter of picking whatever came by. Fonseca zigged and zagged through the vegetation, working the motor like an eggbeater.
At the same time his eyes were ever scanning in search of just-right pods.
Picking the pods was an art to itself. He deftly broke the necks of the seed pods with a quick motion to free them from the stem.
“Don’t just pull on the pod,” Fonseca explained. “You will pull the whole stem out of the mud. That takes too much effort and slows you down.”
There was a reason for speed. By 9 a.m. it was deathly hot and humid — sauna hot.
The dense vegetation seemed to stifle any breath of breeze. He paused the boat, plucked a huge green graine à voler leaf and plopped it on his head.
“That’s good for 15 degrees,” he chuckled, “Instant green air conditioning.”
He kept picking and grinning.
The seed pods are not the only part of the plant that is edible, he pointed out.
“The tubers are wonderful,” Fonseca said. “You dive overboard to get them out of the mud. Slice them in French cut and pan fry them in butter. Then sprinkle sugar on them.“It’s like candy, nuts, oats and honey.”
The seeds are versatile.
“You can eat the seeds either fresh or boiled,” he said. “I have also been told that they freeze well, but they don’t last long enough in our house.
“Jeanie will pick out four or five pods, find a corner and be happy as a fish in a pond.”
They are indeed wonderful fresh. Periodically, Fonseca stopped the motor to break apart a seed head and munch on the seeds.
While eating, he explained that he got his introduction to the seeds when he was about 14 years old.
“They were in a pot of boiled crabs — they threw them in at the end of the boil,” he said.
With Fonseca’s expert boat handling, the big seed pods accumulated rapidly in the bow of the boat. Soon, he cut the motor and began bagging the pods in crawfish sacks for ease of handling.
On the way out of the lake, he cut through an especially lush patch with chest-high leaves and perfect pods.
“Oh yeah,” he exclaimed as he grabbed a plump pod. “That’s a pretty one. Oh, there’s another pretty one; there’s another one.”
He was like a kid in a candy store. He couldn’t resist, and started picking again. On the way out of the lake, as if justifying picking more than his self-imposed limit of two sacks, he jabbed a finger at the big pods loose in the bow.“Those were really nice ones,” Fonseca said.
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