MANCHAC (AKERS), La. — Just by the nature of it, many places in South Louisiana might not be inhabitable too much longer.
Many of its cities and towns are elongated on maps, hugging the only available dry land along highways that run long routes around wetlands and tidal lakes. Susceptible to flooding and storm surges, and plagued by the effects of erosion and subsidence, some of these areas may be a few decades from oblivion, if that.
Interstate 55 links metro New Orleans to Hammond. South of Ponchatoula, the interstate is elevated for most of that journey, passing lowlands stippled with cypress trees draped in Spanish moss as it squeezes between gigantic Lake Ponchartrain and its smaller sister lake, Maurepas. The lakes are the remnants of ancient deltas and formed as the Mississippi River abandoned its former channel and changed its course. The lakes exchange water through two passes. The land in between is called Jones Island and has the tiny community of Manchac, also known as Akers.
Just before the bridge over Pass Manchac, the southernmost waterway, there’s an exit that takes drivers down to the ground and under the interstate to a cluster of homes and churches. At the end of the street is Middendorf’s.
The restaurant was opened by the Middendorf family in 1934, a few years after the patriarch lost his job in the Great Depression and moved to Louisiana. It has two buildings as it has expanded through the years. There is the original ground-floor building and a split-level second building that has one half elevated to provide a deck over Pass Manchac and a lower portion.
This day, prior to the Friday evening rush, customers were seated in this smaller, lower dining room. Anyone who knows Middendorf’s will say these three words: “thin fried catfish.” I don’t know how they do it and what the recipe is for their batter, but one taste and your life simply won’t be the same. It’s always worth the pitstop if I have time.
I satisfied my craving of seven years and got a pile of thin fried catfish, fries, hush puppies, Cole slaw with house-made tartar and cocktail sauces and tea. And that was the small platter.
I scarfed it down. I think one French fry and a few pieces of slaw were all that escaped digestion. I hope it wasn’t so fast that I looked like I lacked home training. I had been dreaming about that catfish since the last time I had it. Seriously.
While waiting on the check, I looked up and saw a set of photos hanging on the walls showing Middendorf’s surrounded by floodwaters. Two photos were taken during Hurricane Ike in 2008 and the third was taken during Hurricane Juan in 1985.
“I didn’t know y’all were flooded in Ike,” I told the waitresses. “I went through that in Texas.”
“Oh yeah, it was bad,” one replied.
“We didn’t even flood during Katrina,” the other, older waitress chimed in. “You’d think that would have been worse.”
It turns out that Katrina didn’t pose a problem to the historic restaurant on the marshy island between the two lakes. It also apparently escaped the wrath of Rita, Katrina’s equally nasty twin that arrived one month later during that brutal summer of 2005. Ike, however, and the weaker, slow-moving Hurricane Isaac a few years ago sent brackish water at least knee-deep into the lower dining room. They talked about the cleanup after Isaac and the water line that climbed the ornate woodwork covering the walls.
In just two days, they said, the smaller dining room would be closed to begin the process of elevating it to the same level as the other half. That presumably would bring the floor above the Isaac water line, which the waitresses said was “the worst” storm surge flooding they’d had.
The edge of Middendorf’s parking lot demonstrates how necessary of a move elevating the restaurant is. It was stormy the day I visited. Days of rain had some of the rivers in the area like the Amite and Comite heading for record crests. A brisk west wind was funneling under the I-55 and U.S. 51 bridges over Lake Maurepas’ rim. A decorative lookout flanked by two sculptures of pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird, opened onto an angry Pass Manchac. Waves crashed against the riprap maybe not two feet below. Without that bulkhead there, it’s not hard to imagine how even that non-tropical weather system could have at least breached the parking lot.
Raising Middendorf’s is the kind of proactive work that has had to happen in this region where man continues to adapt to a slowly vanishing environment. South Louisianians have such a deep love and respect for that environment, too. As harsh and unforgiving a setting as it has been, it is inextricably linked with their culture and they’ve always found ways to get along with it.