After a whirlwind tour through the cities and fisheries of southern Louisiana a couple weeks back, it's clear to me that the flow of misinformation and apprehension about the quality of the seafood coming from the Gulf of Mexico has been far more detrimental to the industry that the oil itself. Louisiana is a fishing powerhouse. Their fisheries—a three billion-dollar-a-year industry—provide over 30% of the nation's oyster supply. Their blue crab production is greater than that of the more well-known Chesapeake bay (indeed, Louisiana actually exports crabs to Maryland to be served, no doubt, on menus offering Maryland Blue Crab).
Tasting my way through cities like Lake Charles, Houma, New Iberia, and New Orleans, it's clear that seafood is the heart and soul of the Cajun and Creole cuisine of the area—indeed, for a solid five days, I had blue crab in some form or another at every single meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) not to mention copious amounts of local shrimp, oysters, fish, and crawfish.
While oil has made landfall on the South-Eastern most tip of Louisiana near the Mississippi Delta, the majority of the coastline to the southeast has felt none of its effects, and there are still plenty of clean fish and shellfish swimming in the waters. It's pretty safe to say that what seafood is coming out of the gulf these days is the safest it has ever been—never has there been more extensive research done on the quality of Gulf seafood from Federal and State governments and third-party independents. Every shrimp, oyster, or redfish being sold on the market is virtually guaranteed to be free from any traces of oil or from contamination from the dispersants used to battle the spill.
The problem, of course, is one of image. Even talking with locals, many are afraid to go near some of the seafood. Shrimping boats sit in the docks waiting not for the shrimp to come—there are still plenty out there—but for the demand. Fuel and supplies for a shrimping boat are not cheap, and many shrimpers are afraid of heading out and hauling in a full catch only to have it rot in their holds before they can sell it. On the other hand, every day a boat sits idle means money lost by an industry that has barely had a chance to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Chefs, for their part, understand the vital role of the seafood industry in both the local economy, and culture. At John Besh's La Provence outside of New Orleans, there's a distinct emphasis on local Louisiana shellfish which manifests itself in dishes like crisp fried redfish with crabmeat and shrimp, an intense bouillabaisse of local shellfish (perhaps the most sea-forward, flavorful dish on the menu), and a creamy blue crab bisque with tender opalescent pearls of tapioca.
Even at the countless lower end fried-food family and buffet-style restaurants, seafood dominates. At the Seafood Palace in Lake Charles, I tried pistolettes for the first time. Small sections of french bread are hollowed out and filled with a creamy crab or crawfish-based filling before being deep-fried until the center is liquid-hot. It's a bread-and-seafood combo bested only by the classic fried shrimp or oyster po' boy sandwiches at bars and restaurants like Tracey's in New Orleans' Garden District (their roast beef is, in fact, even better).
Maintaining demand for local specialties like the redfish made famous by Paul Prudhomme's blackened fish recipe is also a top priority for many chefs. Chef Donald Link of New Orleans' Herbsaint, Cochon, and Butcher knows better than most about the intricacies of fisheries. A Louisiana native, he grew up shrimping in Lake Charles. He has vowed to support the Louisiana fisheries as much as possible, even at a time when local seafood is being undercut by foreign imports—mostly from southeast Asia—struggling to enlarge their footprint in the U.S. market.
According to Link, supporting the local industry in these times of trouble is the only way to guarantee that enough fisherman will be left to maintain the fisheries once they bounce back completely from the damage. A special of redfish served "boat style"—that's half a fish grilled with the scales and skin on to form a sort of built-in dish for the tender meat—was transcendent with supremely tender meat and an intensely smoky flavor.
As a New Englander who's lived and cooked in Boston for ten years, I'm more than a little biased when it comes to oysters. Give me briny, cold-water East Coast oysters, or give me death was my motto. Creamy, metallic West Coast oysters? No thanks. Of course, I'd never actually tried a gulf oyster, and was promptly blown away when I slurped one back raw at W&E oysters, also in Houma. With nothing but a small splash of Louisiana hot sauce (the natural pairing in those parts), it was plump, tender, and just as bracingly briny as my beloved Wellfleets.
At Cristiano's, an Italian restaurant in Houma (about the last place you'd expect to find incredible Italian food), the grilled local oysters are a staple that are still as popular as ever. The oysters are cooked on the halfshell over a roaring open flame, their shells filled with a buttery concoction of garlic, red peppers, and cheese. For the record, I also had what were hands down the best pillowy-tender gnocchi I've ever had (and I know gnocchi—making the gnocchi was my job for over a year back when I was still in restaurants).
There's no doubting the catastrophic effects of the oil spill on the fragile ecology of the Gulf, and the estuaries surrounding it. But to then assume that this tragedy has tainted all the seafood coming from the Gulf is to conflate the issue. To lose our supply of fresh Gulf seafood because of public misconception would be the true tragedy.