Not quite two weeks ago, on June 5, Sal Sunseri opened the first New Orleans Oyster Festival. Postponed a few years because of Hurricane Katrina, the affair, in the city's French Quarter, included contests for wine and oyster pairings as well as oyster shucking basically, cracking open the shell to expose the slippery gray meat for slurping. On June 10, however, the Sunseri family business, P&J Oyster Co., which in 134 years had become the chief oyster purveyor to some of the city's most esteemed restaurants, effectively closed. Not only was it running short of the delicacies, but people were afraid to eat them. "We're mourning," Sunseri says.
Few cities treat seafood with the high reverence of New Orleans, where shrimp is often eaten for breakfast (with buttery grits), oysters for lunch (on a po'boy, or sandwich) and crawfish for dinner (étouffée). But those traditions may become a casualty of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. The oil spill that has brought President Obama to the region for the fourth time in the past month has closed nearly one-third of the Gulf of Mexico to fishing. It is potentially catastrophic for Louisiana's core $2.4 billion seafood industry, which provides much of the nation's fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs.
The region's angst is understandable. New Orleans' main highway, Interstate 10, is lined with billboards showing mounds of fried seafood. Castnet Seafood, a shop in the largely residential New Orleans East section, is still teeming with customers buying shrimp, fish and oysters to store in their freezers. But the owner, Kent Bondi, fears that soon, "that rush is going to come to a complete end." And there is the vexing question: Is the seafood safe to eat? A recent Castnet customer returned with a bag of fish, saying, "It smelled like oil," and demanded a refund. Bondi told her flatly that the catfish was farm-raised, so there was no chance it had been tainted by oil. "It's psychological," he says of the fear.
But people can be forgiven for their questions. The images thousands of gallons of oil spewing each day from the Gulf of Mexico, plus oil-soaked fish, turtles and pelicans are hard to ignore. It's scaring even some of the most ardent seafood devotees. "We won't be able to turn around our brand perception for five years or more," predicts Ashley Roth, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Seafood and Marketing Board. The board has launched a multipronged ad campaign in major newspapers boasting that Louisiana's seafood is indeed safe to eat because most of the state's waterways remain untouched by oil. Meanwhile, a delegation of local chefs is being sent to Washington State and even Finland to evangelize about Louisiana's seafood cuisine; a crawfish boil is scheduled for Dijon, France, this summer.
The challenge isn't just one of perception but supply. There are a couple of reasons for this. While an estimated 70% of Louisiana's coastline remains open to fishing, many shrimpers, oystermen and fishermen have signed up to be among the 13,000 people hired by BP or its contractors to clean up the spill. By one estimate, only 1% of the men who usually harvest oysters are actually doing so mainly because the cleanup jobs can be lucrative (some pay $2,000 a day).
Meanwhile, many of the oyster beds have been closed as a precaution against the arrival of the oil. Some of the beds, however, have become victims of caution. Shortly after the spill began, authorities opened some of the vent-like structures built by the Army Corps of Engineers in order to push freshwater out toward the Gulf and keep the oil from entering the river and surrounding marsh. That meant sharply decreasing salinity in some of the waters where oysters are harvested killing the beds.
Cliff Hall, co-owner of the New Orleans Fish House, one of the city's largest suppliers, is buying West Coast oysters and more imported shrimp than he'd like. "We want to support our local fishermen," he says, "but there's no other choice." Many seafood suppliers had depleted their stock, anticipating a robust fishing season, which typically begins in May. So the crisis, he says, "couldn't have come at a worse time." The pinched supply has driven up the price of oysters about 25% in the past week. "It's going to hit a stopping point of what the consumer will tolerate," says Hall.
For another sense of how the crisis is playing out, consider one of New Orleans' premier restaurants, Commander's Palace. The restaurant's shrimp costs have soared 40%, to about $9.50 per lb., since the oil crisis began. So far, the executive chief, Tory McPhail, has not passed along the added expense to consumers. The higher cost, he says, "forces us to look at our menus, be more value-conscious and do things we wouldn't normally do." One example: maximizing the use of shrimp. It is broken into two parts: the head and tail. McPhail's team breads and then fries the tail, which is the meatier half. The head is roasted at 400°, to dehydrate it, at which point it is ground into a powder. The powder is then used to significantly strengthen the flavor of seafood in a bisque, even with the decrease of shrimp tails in the stock.
So, the bottom-line question: Is it safe to eat seafood in New Orleans? Managers of restaurants, grocery stores and markets quickly point out that their livelihoods depend on serving safe food. Much of the seafood is carefully inspected using one of the most powerful tools: the human nose. And if the seafood looks odd, the chefs don't bother with the ingredient. Robert Buchannan, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security at the University of Maryland at College Par, offers a simple piece of advice: "If the seafood tastes like a petroleum product, it'd be smart not to eat it." The good news is, New Orleans offers a range of po'boy substitutes, like the muffuletta, with salami (cotto and Genoa), smoked ham, mozzarella and an oily olive salad stuffed into a thick round of bread. Sadly, it isn't diet-friendly. But not much in New Orleans is.