New Orleans Still Chowing Down
One of the most heart breaking refrains I have heard during my two long days in Louisiana is that the BP oil disaster threatens to destroy “an entire way of life.” For shrimpers, oystermen, and fishermen, that means the loss of the only vocations they’ve ever known. For the people of New Orleans (many of whom have not yet been directly impacted by blowout) it would mean something different: the loss of a regional style of cooking that is embedded in the region’s culture.
New Orleans’ Cajun and Creole cuisines are among the most unique in the nation, thanks, in large part, to the prolific and diverse seafoods that come from the nearby waters. So naturally I was curious how the spreading oil slick was impacting the city’s famed food scene.
The answer, so far at least, is very little. With the exception of oysters (which I’ll get to in a minute in a subsequent post), seafood continues to flow into the city. But how much longer that will last is anyone’s guess. And many fear that even if fishermen are able to get into open waters that haven’t been impacted by the oil blowout, their catch – clean of oil though it may be – will be tainted by all of the negative publicity associated with the spill.
My first stop upon arriving in New Orleans Tuesday night was the Bon Ton Café, a nice little spot in what locals call the CBD, or “commercial business district,” the working downtown a few blocks from the touristy French Quarter. The Bon Ton, which was opened in the early 1900s, claims to be “New Orleans’ oldest Cajun restaurant,” and it looks the part. The exposed brick walls and wrought iron chandeliers, along with red and white check tablecloths, give the place an old-fashioned feel; the staff, all in white serving jackets, appear to have come from another time. Kind of reminded me of the equally famed Tadich Grill in San Francisco.
“The menu is based around major Louisiana seafood – oysters and shrimp and crayfish,” the Bon Ton’s owner, Wayne Pierce, told me as we stood at the bar. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the place without those ingredients. The menu boasts Bayou Jambalaya, Grilled Fresh Gulf Fish with Louisiana Oysters, Fresh Gulf Fish Topped with Louisiana Shrimp, Pan Broiled Louisiana Shrimp.
I asked Pierce (whose family has run the restaurant for 57 years) what they would do if they experienced a cut-off in the products their dishes rely on. “I don’t know how we’d handle that,” he said. “We’ll cross that bridge if and when it occurs.”
Pierce had the bartender bring me some samples and I have to say (though I’m no restaurant critic) that the food was delicious. A cup of shrimp and crab gumbo with okra and rice was delightfully salty. A tasting of crawfish etoufee was nicely balanced between richness and a little bit spicy bite.
“There’s nothing I can take off the menu that someone isn’t going to come in and ask for tomorrow,” Pierce said. “For the most part, we can’t change our menu. We’ve been doing it so long it’s part of our tradition and our success.”
Across town at Brigtsen’s, I heard a similar story: So far there’s been no interruption in the deliveries of fresh, local fish. If Bon Ton Café is what New Orleans Times-Picayune restaurant reviewer Brett Anderson calls “pure bred” Cajun, Brigtsen’s is “second generation” – grounded in the family recipes of the Bayou, but infused with a contemporary spirit. Located in a converted Victorian cottage in the trendy Uptown District, is part of that culinary trend I think of as “haute-homey” – fancy and carefully prepared comfort food. Chef Frank Brigtsen, who trained with Paul Prudhomme, was at home with a toothache, but his wife and restaurant co-owner Marna was happy to talk.
“So far, it’s not drastic yet,” she said. “We did take oysters off the menu.”
After telling me about a recent trip that she and Frank took to Grand Isle (“It was a ghost town”), she said: “We’ll get through this one. It will be challenging, but the restaurant can adapt. We can serve other things. It’s the fishermen that make their living off shrimping or oystering – they don’t know anything else. They’re not going to get a job at Winn-Dixie.”
Nor are the fishmongers who work at New Orleans Fish House, one of the major seafood warehouses supplying some of the top restaurants (Commander’s Palace, Galatoire’s) in the city. When I stopped by there Wednesday morning, the sales staff had the beleaguered vibe of those in a bunker – “tell ‘em the truth and do right by us,” shouted one of the saleswomen from her cubicle when she saw my reporter’s notebook. The company’s Vice President, Cliff Hall, then gave me the cook’s tour of the warehouse, and he had little good news to share.
“You see that board,” he said, pointing to a white board on the refrigerated dock. “By 8:30 typically this board is black by this time of the day. Today we’ve got eight or nine orders. I’ve got fish – I don’t have the variety and selection I used to have – but I have Gulf product. I’ve got shrimp but the price is so high that people are backing off.”
About 30 percent of Gulf waters have been closed to fishing by state and federal officials. That’s a major bite, to be sure; but it means that some 70 percent of waters are still open, enough, Hall said, to keep his warehouse open. His main worry is that Gulf seafood is being tarred with negative images. “My biggest concern is the public perception and the lack of fishermen. BP has employed, I will guarantee you, 90 percent of the fishermen. There’s places up North that advertise on their door, ‘We don’t serve Gulf seafood.’”
After leaving the fish house, I got Chef Brigtsen on the phone, who told me that he’s worried that if fishermen are out of work too long, and the negative publicity is too persistent, it will have a ripple effect through the industry. Places like New Orleans Fish House will be pressed to stay in business, and the entire seafood distribution system of southern Louisiana could unravel.
“It takes a lot to get seafood from the waters of the Gulf to our homes and restaurants, and that whole chain of harvest and distribution and service is very complex,” he said. “And I am concerned about the breakdown in that chain if this continues.”
Brigtsen continued: “You know, one of the biggest factors involved with this whole thing is the uncertainty. No one knows what the end result will be. So it’s scary. And I think for a lot of us who live here, depression and anger and despondency are real things in our lives. We are resilient people. It’s like my wife said the other night, she said, ‘I’m tired of being resilient.’ It just made me cry. Things were going so well for us. This year in New Orleans and the state, things were really looking up. We were really walking on air, with the Saints victory in the Super Bowl, and a new mayor in town. We were really hopeful and riding a magic carpet. And it’s all derailed now. It’s scary.”