Louisiana finds replacements on menu for seafood favorites affected by oil spill

Commercial fishing continues in the Gulf as the oil slick continues to spread. But how do we know the fish we eat is safe? It appears the nose knows as seafood inspectors learn how to sniff out tainted product from oysters to shrimp and fish.
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

NEW ORLEANS -- The Somethin' Else Cafe in New Orleans unveiled new menus just weeks ago.

Already, they are filled with broken promises.

Jumbo shrimp is no longer on hand to fill a basket that should have eight pieces. Customers can get only one crab cake, not two, for $13. And "The Trinity," an omelet with shrimp, crabmeat and fried fresh catch, has become harder to guarantee.

Enter the humble Louisiana crawfish, a small, lobster-like creature, also known as crayfish.

As other crustaceans have slipped down the restaurant's menu because they thrive in the third of the Gulf of Mexico that has been closed to fishing, the crawfish, found in freshwaters not yet tainted on the western side of the state's coast, has clawed its way to a more prominent position. Crab-and-corn soup has become crawfish-and-corn soup. A seafood gumbo that once featured generous portions of crab and shrimp is now packed with even more crawfish meat.

If any place can serve as an instant gauge of how the oil spill has altered Louisiana's seafood industry, it is New Orleans, where servers shuck oysters by hand, gloveless and confident.

Restaurants in the French Quarter brag about serving homegrown Louisiana seafood, which makes up about 30 percent of the U.S. domestic product, and so there is no question that the loss of the normal supply of shrimp, blue crabs and oysters is being felt here first. But unlike cities that are advertising non-gulf seafood, New Orleans is not abandoning local catch; it's embracing what remains.

Prices may rise and menus may change before the final toll of the spill is known, but chefs here say that as long as part of the Louisiana coastline remains open, they will tap into their culinary creativity before turning to imported catch.

Alligator will likely become more common on menus. Crab cakes may be made of silver carp, which one chef swears tastes the same if cooked right. And restaurants renowned for grilled oyster are already experimenting with grilling mussels.

"We have some of the most creative chefs, and they're going to do whatever it takes to survive," said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. "They will always have seafood on the menu in New Orleans."

But as oil continues to wash ashore, Smith said the state's seafood industry is struggling to combat two misconceptions: that local fishing has stopped, and that the existing seafood supply is unsafe to eat.

"Anything going on the market is being tested and tested and tested at unprecedented levels," he said. It is safe, he stressed, and some of it, at least for now, is abundant.

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