Essay: The BP oil spill threatens the gulf's bountiful cornucopia of life

(Oliver Munday for The Washington Post)
By John Martin Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The festive mood of Friday lunch at Galatoire's did not seem changed since the first time I ate at the 105-year-old New Orleans institution in the late 1950s: the ladies resplendent in their hats and finery, the gents in their seersucker suits, the gin and bourbon flowing like water. The merriment belied the tragic reality of the day's headline: P&J, the city's 134-year-old oyster company, had stopped shucking that morning.

I was in New Orleans to speak at a culinary conference, and of course we ate well, including a three-hour lunch of pig dishes at Cochon. I had a crabmeat omelet at Galatoire's, which has issued a public statement about the oil-spill disaster in the gulf: "Nearly 80 percent of Louisiana's seafood comes from thousands of miles of coastline west of the Mississippi River, hundreds of miles away from the currently affected areas of the Gulf of Mexico. Galatoire's has taken steps to support our seafood producers and ensure that the freshest, highest quality fish, shrimp, crawfish and crabs are available without interruption."

Oysters are conspicuous in their absence from the statement, which you can read at As Brett Anderson reported in the Times-Picayune on June 13, the dwindling supply of local oysters in the wake of the oil spill forced Galatoire's executive chef Brian Landry to scour the restaurant's decades of menus, looking for traditional dishes to replace those featuring the local bivalves. Chicken livers en brochette, however, just don't appeal to me as much as oysters prepared the same way.

As food writers, we were already lamenting this latest devastating blow to the vibrant cuisine. At the end of the conference and before the speakers' dinner, I slipped away in a merciful rain shower with culinary scholar Jessica Harris and Latin chefs Maricel Presilla and Patricia Wilson (all three PhDs) to Dickie Brennan's nearby Bourbon House, renowned for the quality of its oysters. We were reassured that the oysters were all from Area 9 in Plaquemines, west of the Mississippi River. It's one of two areas that have been reopened temporarily as the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals tests gulf oysters and oyster waters. It was Saturday afternoon, about 5 o'clock. Bourbon House sits squarely on the corner of Iberville and boisterous Bourbon Street, in the heart of the French Quarter.

The Beans + Rice conference (where we had lectured), the Creole Tomato Festival and the Louisiana Seafood Festival were going on simultaneously in the Quarter, so there were even more foodies than normal in New Orleans, if that's imaginable. But Bourbon House wasn't half-full -- at happy hour on Saturday -- and several lesser-known oyster bars we passed were empty.

I'm the first to admit that I prefer the brinier East Coast oysters of the R months, if for no other reason than that's what I grew up with. But, as Presilla noted, the plump, meaty oysters from Plaquemines that we ate on Saturday "beg to be cooked and sauced." We ordered several dozen, both cooked and raw, tossing them back with champagne. (The best I had were the wood-fired ones at Cochon.) Wistfully, we snapped cellphone photos of what might well be among the last Gulf Coast oysters for a while. We walked back to the hotel in the rain.

I don't get to the Gulf Coast often, but no food writer can ignore the bountiful cornucopia of the New Orleans table. There's noplace else in the world quite like the Crescent City, with its Creole and Cajun cultures, its sultry weather, its magnificent architecture, its self-proclaimed decadence. Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and Friday at Galatoire's are no more excessive than an ordinary meal in New Orleans. Mounds of beans and rice, sweetbreads, vegetables swimming in hollandaise and oysters Rockefeller are mere side dishes or appetizers. Courses that follow are stuffed with crabmeat, garnished with crawfish and invariably sauced, followed by gumbo, jambalaya or fried soft-shell crabs with sauce Choron.

For as long as I can remember, I have eaten oysters, frog's legs, shrimp, crawfish and drum. That's because I was born a stone's throw from the Mississippi, in Baton Rouge. When I was 3, we moved to the very similar terrain of the South Carolina low country. I have lived through several hurricanes, including Hugo, which put me out of house and business for a year.

When I was growing up, my mother would send me out in our sailboat's dinghy to catch lunch. In autumn, I would cast our old circular shrimp net into the brackish waters of the salt marsh, pulling in several pounds of shrimp. At low tide in winter, I would gather oysters and clams from the then-pristine waters, my mother tossing back into the creek any oysters under 10 inches long. In spring, the crab trap offered up not only those luscious blue crabs, but flounder and eel as well.

My older sister Nancy returned to Louisiana to attend LSU. On the rare occasion that she was home, she gloated about her meals at Galatoire's: turtle soup, shrimp remoulade, crabmeat omelet, crawfish etouffee and, of course, those oysters. Shortly after Nancy went away to school, we began spending a lot of time on our sailboat down on the estuaries behind Hilton Head Island. For years ours was one of a handful of pleasure craft docked or moored there. We envied her restaurant meals in Louisiana, but we had a wealth of seafood a cast or trap away.

These days, I drive a car, use air conditioning and leave all sorts of appliances and electronic equipment plugged in, their digital clocks constantly draining electricity and increasing our demand for cheap fuel. No matter what I think about BP, I know that I, too, am partly to blame for the oil spill, because I add to that demand.

We are all incensed about the ecological damage to the gulf, but multinational oil companies have spilled many millions of gallons in the Niger Delta over the years, polluting the air, water and soil of millions of Nigerians who depend on fish from the rivers simply to sustain their lives. I can give you a ballpark estimate of how many turtles and dolphins have washed up dead in the oily mess in the gulf, but I cannot tell you the name of a single one of the people who lost their lives in the rig fire.

I am embarrassed by my own myopia and greed.

I am livid about the gulf oil spill, and I worry about the seafood industry, but I also know that many of the thousands of jobs affected by the spill are for manual laborers who will never set foot in the temples of Creole cuisine about which I, with my bourgeois tastes and wallet, tend to wax poetic.

I am angry and worried about the people of Louisiana. How much more can they take? Do I continue to order oysters out of season in hopes of contributing to the demand for them, so that prices will go higher and help the Gulf Coast seafood industry if and when it is able to return to business? Do I continue to write purplish prose about my favorite seafood dishes while fishermen are out of work?

This tragedy should present us all with moral dilemmas. I think we must demand change, but change begins at home. As President Obama noted in his June 15 speech about the disaster, "we can't afford not to change how we produce and use energy." Boycotting BP will only hurt your local gas station owner. Instead, slow down, use public transportation, and carpool. Set your air conditioning a few degrees higher. Turn off your computer and cellphone when they're not in use. And this weekend, forgo those bottles of champagne and imported wine and instead write a check to one of the nonprofit groups that are prepared to employ trained volunteers to help clean up the mess and restore the fisheries.


Oyster Po' Boy

John Martin Taylor, the author of four cookbooks, blogs at He lives in the District.

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