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.

After that, our crawfish pots were used to feed hundreds of workers rushed in to "turn around" our many oil refineries, which flank the banks of the Mississippi. And yes, we were all too happy to charge the oil companies for our services—not because we hated "them" but because it was a means to our survival. I never thought about drawing a correlation between the propane burners and the downed, and in some cases oil-flooded, refineries. In my mind we were doing what we could with what we had to feed folks and to employ people who had many others depending upon them to live. I believe God gave me a talent to cook, and I used that talent to do my part in providing for my family and the 120 employees I was responsible for. Today we have roughly 500 employees, and I've got six partners—one of whom is the former Marine friend, and another the homeless Israeli chef.

Nearly five years after the storm, I was asked by a propane council to be a spokesperson for safe grilling, emphasizing the dos and don'ts of grilling with propane. They paid me for my time, and I gladly took their money. You see, I'm a businessperson. In particular, we chefs buy all sorts of tasty goods, cook them, and sell them for a profit. It's how I'm able to sustain a beautiful life for my wife and four boys. The propane folks who paid me still have no clue that I even have an honest affinity for propane.

Getting back to the Deepwater Horizon/British Petroleum debacle. I was truly sickened by the lack of response, and wrote an op-ed about my feelings in the Atlantic Food Channel. I've never thought of myself as an anti-anything person, but I am pro-responsibility—something I'm trying to pass on to my four young lads. For instance, if you drop something, then pick it up. If it's beyond my boys' realm to pick it up, then as their father I should have been paying much closer attention. And if the mess my boys made affects my neighbors, it seems logical that I take responsibility and figure out how to mitigate the damages or effects on my neighbor. This is simple stuff. If I spend my energy questioning my boys about whose fault it was, of course they will all point to one another saying, "It wasn't me, Dad" or "It was so-and-so's fault."

So with BP. Those of us here are left with a seemingly insurmountable mess, with the richest wetlands of America and a culture to match hanging in the balance. Whoever is looking to assign blame—even to me, for taking money for promoting propane—is overlooking the plight of those fish, birds, and people who depend upon the salt marsh estuaries that give the Gulf of Mexico and much of America life. Our wetlands and culture are at stake! Now let us see what we are going to do about it.

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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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