Tag Archives: Gulf coast

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

BP Gulf Spew and the Future of Seafood

New Orleans Jazz Fest Seafood

When you see the words “spew” and “seafood” in the same title, you can assume things are not good.

The enormous and ongoing oil spill/leak resulting from the destruction of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico has created a sense of imminent catastrophe in New Orleans and the region. The city has been flying high lately, cheered by the election of a new mayor, by the Saint’s Superbowl victory and by dozens of smaller success stories that all suggest we had turned a corner and started, maybe, to put the floods of 2005 behind us.  New Orleans was—and still is—in the process of becoming one of the great urban experiments of the 21st century.  It has become a model of how to turn a city around by focusing on the local, on making things human-scaled, all the while building on a very distinctive local culture.

That culture includes food and foodways in which seafood plays a central part.  It is on the menus of nearly every restaurant in the region, from fried seafood platters and raw oysters to the most elegant plates in white tablecloth restaurants, as Chef John Besh points out.  Seafood is a way of life along the Gulf coast, supporting generations of fishing families.  From roadside stands, to farmers markets, grocery stores, home kitchens and restaurants, everyone in this region eats seafood.  You can get affordable oysters, shrimp, crabs, crawfish and fin fish.  It is not frozen (one local restaurant’s advertising slogan is “Friends don’t let Friends eat Frozen Fish“) and it is not imported.  It is what people talk about too.  When I did jury duty last winter, we talked fishing and seafood in the jury room.  Women and men, black and white, we all shared our best places to fish, our recipes, our stories.

The BP disaster threatens to destroy that, maybe forever.  It is terrifying…and it was probably avoidable.  There have been plenty of warnings about how we set ourselves up for environmental disaster, some specifically about the oil industry, others more general, including work by anthropologists on oil and chemical spills, mining destruction, environmental justice and threats to our food supply that are too numerous to cite.  We have allowed industries to regulate themselves, claiming that enlightened self-interest would result in safety for workers and the public while freeing up the dynamic energy of the market.

At what point will we question this perspective?  How many lives are worth sacrificing—not just in West Virginia mines or Gulf of Mexico oil platforms, but in China, Angola, Nigeria, Russia, Mexico, Iraq or India?  The production of energy and food are both fraught with risk, of course, and it is futile to demand that we eliminate all danger from those processes.  But we do have to recognize the potential consequences of the choices we make.  We have to understand that decisions to “drill, baby, drill” can quickly result in the destruction of an entire industry and way of life.  And we have to recognize that it is possible to make different choices.  We can produce energy and food in ways that are both sustainable and affordable.  Maybe New Orleans will lead the way there too.  But I will save that for a future blog entry.  Meanwhile, Gulf coast seafood is still safe.  Show some solidarity with our fishers and go eat some!

Posted by David Beriss

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Filed under disaster, economics, media, sustainability