Tag Archives: BP oil spill

City of Gastronomy

Louisiana bumper sticker

The BP Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico (named, it seems, for the fictitious town invented by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”) has been capped, top-killed, sealed and may be bottom-killed as well. Last we checked, the government and BP were looking into adding a new blowout preventer to the well. We have a whole new vocabulary that we can try to work into class lectures, articles and blog entries. However, this new set of oil spill words should not distract us from a simple fact: the Gulf Coast remains in danger.

Gulf Coast seafood producers find themselves in a paradoxical situation. On one hand, the end of the spew and the reopening of many commercial and sport fishing areas means that seafood from the Gulf will once again be widely available. The seafood producers, including the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, have worked hard to build the local brand, trying to assure people that food from the Gulf is not only safe, but extraordinarily good. Obviously, the BP spill tarnished that brand, so their priority now is to resurrect it. The government has been testing the seafood extensively to show that it is safe to consume. The future of the seafood industry on the Gulf Coast—the way of life for thousands of people—is at stake.

At the same time, residents of the Gulf Coast want to remind you that the end of the oil spill is not the end of the problem. There is still oil on the beaches, in the wetlands, maybe under the sea. Seafood producers, processors, restaurant owners and workers and others involved in the Gulf Coast tourist industries have all lost income in the last few months. Cleaning up the damage and making people whole will take time and money. They do not want to be forgotten. Of course, calling attention to this also calls attention to the damage the oil and dispersants may have done to the environment and to the seafood. Which, of course, raises further questions about safety.

Another bumper sticker

A paradox, indeed.

Food activists are using ideas about food culture and heritage in one of the more interesting efforts to address this paradox. A group led by the food activist Gary Nabhan has recently published a collection outlining reasons why we should look at the Gulf of Mexico as both a biological resource and as a key part of America’s cultural heritage. The pamphlet has short articles by food activists in the New Orleans area—people you should read if you are planning on visiting the city for the AAA meetings in November—who explain clearly what is at stake in cultural terms in restoring the health of the Gulf of Mexico.

The problems go far beyond the immediate oil spill. They are biological, of course, but also social and cultural. The articles show what kinds of species are endangered, not just by the recent oil spill, but by other longer term problems. These include the destruction of the Louisiana coast due to oil canals, pipelines and the efforts to control the Mississippi river, all of which have rendered the region vulnerable to salt water intrusion, eroded wetlands and increased the area’s susceptibility to hurricane storm surges. It also includes the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is created every year by farm runoff from America’s heartland spewing out from the Mississippi. And it is not just seafood that is at stake. The Gulf Coast is home to plants such as mirlitons (known also as chayote squash) and many other vegetables, to heritage cattle breeds and other kinds of livestock, all of which are in danger of vanishing as the coast disappears and as the pressures of the American food industry and of culinary homogenization press in.

One group is working to have UNESCO designate New Orleans as a “City of Gastronomy.” This includes several of the authors from the Nabhan’s collection, other New Orleans food activists, representatives of the city government and the author of this post. The City of Gastronomy designation is currently held by only three cities (Popayan, Colombia, Chengdu, PRC and Östersund, Sweden). It is part of a broader “creative cities network” that UNESCO has created to promote social, economic and cultural development in cities around the world. This meshes with the emphasis in Louisiana on the “cultural economy” and is understood by our group as a means toward legitimizing the city’s claim that it is home to a distinct culinary heritage. This is not merely an historical artifact: the foodways of New Orleans and the surrounding region, from the waters of the Gulf and the people who work them, to farmers, gardeners, home cooks and restaurant chefs, is indeed a living creative culture. Insuring the health of the Gulf Coast is a key part of making sure that that culture can be sustained. We want to remind you that buying and eating the products of the Gulf is not just good eats. It is also a key part of keeping a way of life alive.

Posted by David Beriss

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Filed under AAA 2010 New Orleans, anthropology, culture, disaster, economics, food policy, heritage, media, sustainability

Shrimps and Earl

Shrimps in earl, photo by David Beriss

Watching the BP Oil Spew slowly unfold, I started to wonder about our relationship to food and oil (“earl” if you tawk rite) here in south Louisiana.  Food activists have observed that Americans are increasingly detached from the sources of their food.  The people who produce seafood, meat and vegetables are invisible in the supermarket and the packaged products show no trace of work or human hands. Of course, this is largely true here too.

Except for seafood.  As I mentioned in my last note, our seafood is usually from around here, fresh, affordable and recognizable.  People in south Louisiana often fish for themselves or, if they don’t, they get fish from neighbors and friends who do.  And it is damn good.  Sometimes we buy our shrimp at the grocery store, but we also get it from the shrimper directly, parked on the side of the road, with an ice chest in the back of a pickup truck.  Or at the shrimp lot in Westwego, a town on the West Bank of the Mississippi, in the suburbs of New Orleans where shrimpers gather with their trucks.  This is also true of crabs and other fish.  We know the people who catch our seafood personally.  When my students read Paul Durrenberger’s excellent book “Gulf Coast Soundings,” about shrimpers, they add their own insights, because many of them have family in the business.

I thought about this as I was driving to work this morning.  I thought that maybe this was why we felt violated by the oil industry and its apparent disregard for safety and the environment.  Or why we are angry at the government for giving up on regulating industries.

But then I thought something else.  For most Americans, oil is also a mysterious product that appears, out of nowhere, in the form of gasoline, conveniently available for their cars.  It comes from foreigners.  Which is true, but not the whole truth.  Oil comes from the Gulf of Mexico.  It is explored and extracted by people…who are our neighbors and friends.  We all know people who work offshore, on the rigs like the one that exploded, as well as geologists, engineers and others who work in the industry.  Full disclosure: a couple years ago, my wife worked briefly as a computer consultant at Shell, which maintains a very large presence in New Orleans.  Shell sponsors our famous Jazz and Heritage Festival (“presented by Shell”).  The oil industry employs thousands of people here, probably just as many as the seafood industry.  Some people work in both industries.  It is one of the main sources of tax revenue for the state of Louisiana, a fact that makes those of us working in public higher education depressingly dependent on the price of oil for our budgets.

One of the more amazing festivals in Louisiana is the annual Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, in Morgan City.  This appetizingly named event has been going on for the last 75 years and, as the web site states, “The festival also emphasizes the unique way in which these two seemingly different industries work hand-in-hand culturally and environmentally in this area of the ‘Cajun Coast.'”

An observation that ought to make you think about some of the oppositions we have been using to frame this spill.

The oil industry is clearly responsible for a great deal of the environmental destruction we face along the Gulf Coast.  At a distance, it may seem simple to criticize this giant industry for its destruction of our otherwise wonderful way of life…except that we are them.  We don’t just buy their products.  We work at making them.  Even those of us who don’t work in the oil industry directly are dependent on their revenues.  We have chosen to build our economy around the kind of industry that can and has destroyed our environment and culture.   We have given the industry an enormous amount of support.  Maybe we have allowed ourselves to be sold a bill of goods by our (suddenly very pro-environment) leaders.  But we should not forget that we picked these people to lead us.  Their way is not the only way, a fact that we have not yet learned here in Louisiana.

Oil and shrimp.  Louisiana—and the whole Gulf Coast—needs to look in the mirror.  This disaster is personal in a lot of ways that may make us uncomfortable.  Getting BP to pay for this is a great idea.  But untangling oil and seafood in our economy and in our culture will be a far greater challenge.  And the subject of another blog posting.

Posted by David Beriss

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Filed under disaster, economics, sustainability, Uncategorized