Tag Archives: Louisiana

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

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