The BP Oil Spill: Destroying a Food Tradition


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On day one of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it broke my heart to think of the family members who sat in fearful anticipation of what might have happened to their loved ones who work on rigs. My heart ached too for our gulf and the fertile yet fragile ecosystem of our coastline.

It never occurred to me to hate the oil company or to hate offshore drilling. The rigs have been out there in the gulf my entire life. They've become reef systems for every type of aquatic life you can imagine. Part of fishing as a child meant heading out to the rigs. The inland rigs meant redfish and trout, and that meant court bouillon and almondine. A little farther out it was lemon fish, grouper, and amberjack, fish for the grill. Yet farther out and it was tuna, bull dolphin, wahoo, and other powerful fish it took considerable means to fish for, both in money and equipment. We had neither, so those trips depended upon an invite.

The rigs also meant salvation when the boat motor went out or when a massive thunderstorm would blow in and trap you offshore. Never did I question drilling or oil in general, in part because it was the livelihood of most of the men in the neighborhood, who worked offshore as divers, helicopter pilots, and various mid-level management types.

We also lived with shrimpers, fishers, and crabbers. I grew up shrimping with very small trawls that I'd pull around the lake with my 15-foot skiff. Every now and then I'd get work as a hand on a large trawler, 65 feet or so. In between drags, after we sorted and picked the shrimp from the other 500 species of critters that would be swept up in the nets, we'd boil shrimp in a big pot on a big propane burner. I can still taste those shrimp today—the best I've ever had, boiled by men who took great pride in what they cooked. Often they would add a few drops of Meyer lemon oil, which gave the shrimp an exotic lemongrass flavor.

I gave the propane burner and tank no more thought than as a means of portable cooking. And the old island's "Captain Manny" probably didn't think he was setting a trend by using sustainably grown lemon oil in his boil—it was what he had at his fingertips, grown from his land in lower St. Bernard parish. Propane burners are a way of life in southeast Louisiana, to such a degree that we just plain call them "crawfish pots and burners." Everyone has one, and the name denotes the most popular spring activity in these parts.

Years later, after Hurricane Katrina, it was the crawfish pot and the marshaling of resources like propane tanks, red beans, black beans, lima beans, pinto beans, and rice that saved my business and gave others hope at a time we'd lost it all. When there was no other means but fire—and even the available wood supply was too wet for any sort of reliable cooking fuel—those tanks made it possible for Alon Shaya, a homeless Israeli chef; Blake LeMaire, a former Marine Corps comrade; and me to cook. Alon and I made whatever beans we could get our hands on, and paired them with rice to serve out of Blake LeMaire's flatboat in Igloo ice chests. We fed people until there were no more people to feed: many of the people who lived where we were cooking had been moved to shelters outside the affected area.

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John Besh is the James Beard Award-winning chef of Restaurant August and five other restaurants in New Orleans, Louisiana. More

John Besh is a chef and native son dedicated to the culinary riches of southern Louisiana. At each of his six acclaimed restaurants (August, Besh Steak, Lüke, La Provence, American Sector, and Domenica) as well as in his entrepreneurial pursuits, his cookbook (My New Orleans), and his public activities, he celebrates the bounty and traditions of the region.

A former U.S. Marine, Besh has been honored by Food & Wine ("Top 10 Best New Chefs in America"), Gourmet Magazine ("Guide to America's Best Restaurants"), Food Arts (Silver Spoon Award), and the James Beard Foundation (Best Chef - Southeast). John Besh is a frequent guest chef on NBC's Today Show and has appeared on top programs on the Food Network and the Sundance Channel.

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