Play along for a minute. Imagine that suddenly, there's no mayonnaise for sale. The factories that produce the stuff were suddenly hit by an asteroid and rendered useless for the forseeable future.
Tragic, yes, but it may or may not have a measurable impact on your daily life. You'll swap in mustard on your lunchtime sandwich for now. It doesn't taste the same, but it's something. You could always whip out the whisk and make a batch of fresh, homemade mayo like you've seen Julia Child do on TV a million times, but you’re a busy, working person.
Tuna salads and BLTs suddenly become the stuff of daytime reverie and something of a delicacy, as higher-end restaurants are the only ones with the muscle to get access to the limited amounts that are out there, and they’re making no apologies for passing the jacked-up costs to customers who are suddenly, painfully nostalgic for the flavors of home.
That’s it! You’ll call Mom. You’ve moved a state or two away, but she’s still holding down the homefront in Mayo Country and moreover, she is and will always be the best cook you know. It just wouldn’t be the holidays without her fill-in-the-blank dip or casserole. She’s been making it as long as you can remember, and some of your most cherished memories are of standing, flanked by her and your grandmother, as they held your little hands and showed you exactly how to stir the mixture, how it was supposed to taste, what it looks like the moment before you should pull it from the oven.
This is the year that she was going to teach your kids, and you realize with a sinking feeling – most of the cherished, handwritten recipes in that rusting box in the cupboard have mayonnaise in them. They’re mayonnaise-centric. They were specifically devised, decades before either of you were born, to highlight the bounty, flavor, freshness and downright specialness of the mayonnaise that characterizes and sustains the region where you grew up and…
Of course we’re not talking about mayonnaise, though many of us came from regions where the loss of that would be almost as significant a blow. Gulf Coast seafood is at peril from the oil spill that occurred 100 days ago, and the ripple effect will, some fear have a longterm impact on the way Gulf Coast residents pass along their cooking heritage at home.
“Everything starts with seafood in our state,” says Ewell Smith. He’s the Executive Director of the Louisiana Seafood Board – a group that promotes and markets his native state’s shell and fin fish to consumers and chefs across the country – but it’s more than just a job for him.
“My grandfather ran a shrimp processing plant, and every week, he’d bring home a five pound block of shrimp, or trade it for other seafood. I thought this was normal! Here, seafood is the appetizer and the main course, and my Mom was an incredible cook. I’d put her crawfish etouffee and trout amandine up against any of the celebrity chefs’ versions. In fact, I’d put a lot of home cooks up against any of our big chefs.”
“My mom learned from her grandmother, and that’s how you learn to cook in this state. It’s stove to stove. So many of these big chefs learned at the stove with their mom.”
As soon as Houston chef Bryan Caswell knew he wanted to cook for a living, he put everything else aside and set up camp with each of his grandmothers, Birdie-Bea and Ma Daigle. He’d fished in the Gulf all his life and had that down pat, but it was the kitchen time with these women that galvanized him. “I was lucky enough to know that they had something I wanted.” He spent summers at their sides, watching and documenting how they cooked, and eventually applying that to his own kitchen repertoire.
Says Caswell, “It’s less about a recipe, and more about being in her kitchen, looking out the window at the farm. It’s about a time and place – a memory of food. Every time I eat those dishes, it immediately shoots me back there.”
But what if the fundamentals, the staples of a regions cooking are suddenly taken away? ‘Talk About Good: Le Livre de la Cuisine de LaFayette’ – the Lafayette Junior League cookbook contains over 100 seafood recipes alone – many of them anchored by oysters and shrimp, and 'Tony Chachere’s Cajun Country Cookbook', circa 1972, boasts over 60 seafood-centric recipes. These are just two of the scores of regional, comb-bound collections of recipes that will, for the foreseeable future, not be as easily feasible – or at least not in the same way.
Yes, the Gulf is hardly the only seafood producing region, and the dishes might still taste good. They just won’t taste quite like the home the natives so dearly love.
Still, Ewell Smith and Bryan Caswell remain hopeful that the fate of seafood won’t be that dire. Smith notes that most of the affected species are resilient, and that he hopes the impact, barring a hurricane, won’t be as severe as they’d feared. The industry won’t really know until next year, and he’s hoping that BP will help sustain the fishermen with work until then. “It’s a ripple effect,” he says. “No work means no fishermen, and no fishermen means no seafood. I’m hoping they hang on.”
And to home cooks, concerned with keeping their family’s and regions’ traditions alive, it should be “a wake-up call,” Smith says. “It would be tragic if we lost that.”
Here's our challenge to you. Using iReport, grab a camera - video or still - and document an older relative cooking a family recipe. Get 'em talking about how the recipe came into their lives, and some notable occasion where they served it. We'll share our favorites in an upcoming feature.