Soul food

The oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is poisoning more than the region’s sea life, finds Jim Gabour
Jim Gabour
2 July 2010

The United States is losing more than just redfish and oysters and shrimp and crabs these days. 

Robert A Thomas, PhD, chair of environmental communication at Loyola University New Orleans, recently cited evidence that the Gulf oil-spill is having an effect on the nation’s ability to readily obtain a quality chicken-dinner. 

The ongoing environmental destruction in the Gulf means that the number of invitations Thomas already receives to speak has grown exponentially in the last two months. This is possibly because his expertise and insights into BP’s effect on the American food-chain go well beyond the water. Even though this area of the Gulf of Mexico furnished some 30% of the country’s seafood before the spill, Thomas details the further impact of the destruction of coastal marshes. 

At a luncheon for New Orleans businessmen, he pointed at the plates of food, a baked chicken dish, being consumed. "Why are we supposed to save the wetlands?" he asked.  “If you lose the wetlands, you lose the commercial fishing industry. No questions about it." But, further, he added: "You remove the marsh, you remove the plankton, which removes the menhaden (a Gulf fish used extensively for fishmeal, the principal high-protein feed for poultry) which removes the chickens.” 

The menhaden are already washing up dead on oil-slicked south Louisiana beaches by the thousands.  Their plankton food-source is diminishing, their swimming and breeding area clouded by giant swathes of oil. 

Bob and I have offices in the same building on the Loyola campus, and are, much to my delight, friends. Easily enough, as he is an aggressively congenial force, always positive and quick with a smile.  Coincidentally, we were both raised in central Louisiana, in an area bounded by Bayou Boeuf and the Red River, the Red emptying into the Mississippi, and thus flowing downstream through New Orleans and directly out into the ever-widening petroleum spew.

That connection made me once again realise that the culture of Louisiana continually filters through the south, too.

Land rites

In my own childhood, back near Bayou Boeuf, there were only three houses on the mile-and-a-half of ditch-lined dirt named Boeuf Trace, “cattle trail”.  There was, and still is, a “Duck Crossing” sign at the head of the Trace where it crosses Bayou Robert, to protect the flocks of wild geese and ducks who nest year-round on the bayou, and occasionally cross the road to feed their young.  Feeling part of nature was not an option growing up there. You were immersed in it on a daily basis. 

I have never known kids like those I met as a child. Both of my best friends spoke Cajun French as their primary language. Their secondary mode of communication was in the swamps, hunting and fishing.  As a concession to civilisation, one of my buddies took accordion lessons - learning the squeezebox was the Cajun equivalent to studying concert piano.  My other friend slept in a used Greyhound shell that his father, a bus mechanic, had purchased to relieve the overcrowding in their tiny brick house, and parked permanently in their back yard.  The old bus’s slide-back windows overlooked Bayou Boeuf swamp, which teemed with life.

Out there we caught catfish, fresh-water eels and crawfish when the water came up, and hunted rabbit and squirrel and occasionally wild boar when it was down. From the time I was 8 years old until I was 18 and went away to university, a substantial percentage of what we ate came from the marshes surrounding our houses, including the annual and substantial fall spending money made from picking pecans. 

Eating off the land is a good feeling, even though I can now no longer bear the thought of hunting. These days when it comes to meat, sanitary pre-packaged portions of flesh from local farms is as close as I get to the source. Still, as a child, I can remember being very proud when we brought food home, however small, something fished or netted or hunted, something that became part of a family meal. 

But my parents had other occupations that regularly fed us, and what I experienced upriver is completely overshadowed by the way of life that exists on the Louisiana coastline, where a complete culture of people not only feed themselves, but send sustenance to a large portion of the nation by harboring and harvesting a naturally-recurring resource, the once-bountiful sea life of the very wetlands now being forever poisoned.

I keep remembering how heartfelt and real the culture was, the state of mind that generated the gentle but vibrant lilt of Cajun and Zydeco music, the sense of community brought on by a grande boucherie with a dozen or more families sharing the hours as a spit-roast boar turned over coals, the gathered friends sniffing spiced steaming pots filled from forty-pound bags of native crawfish caught in dozens of homemade chicken-wire traps. 

It was a rich life, even if I lived it only on the periphery of the Real Thing.  When we traveled south to the coast each summer, returning home at the end of a beach afternoon, my father would often pull the car onto an oyster-shell-covered road shoulder, usually a protected patch running alongside a bridge or waterway. He’d give each of us kids a short stick with a piece of old salami or bacon or left-over chicken tied at the end of an eight-foot piece of string. Our task was to lower the bait into the brackish water, wait for a tug, then quickly bring up the attached blue crab, and shake it into a basket.  Without getting pinched. Inevitably, in less than an hour we would have the principal ingredient for the evening’s generous boiled dinner.

We are still eating marsh and lake crabs these days, but their habitat is rapidly shrinking as the oil comes further inland, and many of the people who made their living off catching them are turning elsewhere for a livelihood.

Like occupations based on natural resources, culture can also disappear or sour, whether it is due to the effects of oil or the unnatural flow of money or, in the case at hand, a combination of the two.  There is now a second revenue cash-cow polluting these southern waters.  I must mention here what would seem a minimal ancillary byproduct of gambling. 

Casino blues

I have nothing against casinos.  They have been part of the coast forever, even when illegal. My father and mother went to the Biloxi casinos on their honeymoon some sixty years ago, staying at the lush Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans on their way down, and, having left much of their wedding money at the Mississippi gaming tables, being forced by economics to stay in inexpensive gender-separate dormitories at the Lee Circle YMCA on their way back home. 

I have nothing against casinos, no. At least the gambling. But they have developed their own idea of culture which tends to grind down any other they encountered. Even those run by Native Americans. 

Though their aesthetics as far as entertainment goes seems indicative of a very value-remote manner of celebrating the arts, I can stomach as many Deep Purple, Moody Blues, and Journey reunions as they can muster. I can deal with them wheeling out the mummy of Wayne Newton every other week to murmur the words Danke schoen three times in a thirty-minute show to a $100-a-head audience.  I can even deal with a parade of yet another dozen low-budget made-in-Taiwan Cirque du Soleil rip-offs. 

But this last production is more than I can handle.

The Biloxi, Mississippi, beaches outside the casino in question has been invaded by tar-balls, the sea offshore full of dead fish and oily swells, and yet here is an advert proclaiming the premiere coastal resort casino now offering as entertainment “Mini Britney, Mini Beyonce & Mini Madonna”. The extravagantly produced show revels in a cavalcade of midget - vertically challenged? - women clad in skimpy Vegas-style costumes, singing, humping, bumping and pelvic-thrusting to songs created by the original female stars.

I stared at the newspaper ad, the picture of Mini Britney with her back arched, her small enhanced breasts and tiny hips protruding forward, her miniature body decorated in shining circles of sequins and skin-baring cutout spandex, and I thought about the casino’s theatre, which physically protrudes into the water on the beach. And the sand beneath.

I found that, quite literally, my mouth was hanging open.

The temporal coincidence of Bob Thomas’s speech, my memory’s evocation of our distant connection to a completely self-subsistent, productive and content culture, and this new glaring image of the shimmying, musical Mini girls dancing and extolling the inequities of modern teen romance at the tarred beach - all these together - have finally given me a true vision of the depth of this tragedy.


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