Darlene Kimball hated the seafood business as a kid.
She was raised in the Pass Christian Harbor, where her father's seafood business was, and would become the fourth generation of the Kimball family to make a living from the salty waters south of her home, but in those early years, it was not a labor of love -- far from it.
"I had no choice, and on Saturdays when my father made me filet fish I said to myself, 'I'll never do this when I grow up,' but look at me now," Kimball said recently while sitting in her office at the new Pass Christian Harbor. "I love this business!"
Her passion for the seafood business, particularly the 14,000 acres of oyster reefs just south of Pass Christian, is obvious. She calls the oystermen she does business with "my boys," and she always has hot coffee and doughnuts for them when they pull up to her dock, loaded with sacks of oysters.
"My father did the same thing," she said with a laugh. "I thought he was nuts to do it, but later I realized how hard these guys work. It's a brutal business, and a little hot coffee and a doughnut can be a very good thing when you come in after a rough day."
To appreciate the richness of the scene, you must realize Kimball is a petite blonde, with hair that always seems to be getting in her face. She is energetic, and fast talking.
While talking prices with an oysterman who is towers over her at 6 feet tall, filthy from his long day of oyster tonging and sitting on the gunwale of his boat loaded with full oyster sacks, she doesn't back
Kimball has offered.
The oyster business is not booming in Pass Christian, at least not yet.
Before 2005's Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 BP oil spill, Kimball worked with 80 boats a day.
They kept her two booms in constant motion lifting the heavy sacks (about 60 pounds each) from the deck of the boats to the dock.
Now, even during the oystering season, the reefs seem to be closed more often than not for various reasons, and she has a scant 15 or 20 boats.
"It's my job to be optimistic (about the future of the Mississippi oyster program)," said J. Scott Gordon Sr., director of the state Department of Marine Resources' Shellfish Bureau.
He said the Governor's Oyster Council has a goal of a million sacks of oysters being harvested every year by 2020. To achieve such a turnaround, he said, oyster aquaculture will be the focus, as well as restoring the existing reefs.
Kimball was not so sure about the prospects.
"Only God knows," she said.
The state recently conducted a relay, a process by which oystermen harvested 200 sacks of oysters per boat and moved them to safe areas, but it was only a three-day event.
There is even talk that oyster reefs might soon open off Biloxi.
The state and DMR are working hard to restore and improve the oyster reefs and harvest, but some factors are just unpredictable.
Heavy rains and the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway can wreak havoc on a season.
"This is our way of life," Kimball said.
It's a tough way of life, but Kimball has persevered.
After Katrina, she set up shop on the concrete slab where her business once stood and sold what seafood she could get her hands on.
She came back after the oil spill as well, and today she is selling more shrimp, crabs and fish than ever before.
She is also working with the health department and hopes to be able to sell cooked seafood soon.
If you happen to stop by her shop in the Pass Harbor, check out the fresh seafood -- and if you are lucky, she will have the shrimp and crab rolls, for which she is famous.
Pick up some local oysters when they are available, and give this recipe a try.
OYSTER LOAF WITH A TWIST
12 fat oysters per loaf
1 short po-boy loaf
Panko bread crumbs
½ cup favorite coleslaw
Valentino hot sauce
Toss the oysters in the tempura powder, allow them to sit a few minutes and become tacky, and then toss in the panko. Deep fry in a large pot, filled no more than half full of oil, for 1 minute, remove and drain. Split the bread open, fill with oysters, add the slaw and lots of hot sauce. Enjoy with a bottle of Barq's.