Dishes at risk – cooking on the Gulf Coast
July 28th, 2010
10:42 AM ET
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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.

See all Gulf Coast seafood coverage on Eatocracy and full coverage throughout CNN

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soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. oneStarman

    SHRIMP BENZENE – with corexit sauce. Not only causes cancer but birth defects too. We will be suffering for years because we let BP mix poison into our food supply rather than skim it off the water.

    July 30, 2010 at 7:54 pm |
  2. welnie

    Ummmm, this article was just plain bad, I still dont know what the point is, cept the wrtier prolly likes mayo, and we shouldnt lose our mothers recipe boxes, and errrmmmm.. yeah..

    July 29, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
  3. CajunB

    We'll still have seafood yeah, but my granny's shrimp boulettes are gonna taste different for a while. Alabama and Florida shrimp are sweet, Texas shrimp are a bit iodiney, Louisiana shrimp is the medium between flavors. They have a very distinct taste. I have tried shrimp from other places and they're good, but they're nothing compared to ours. And, having been born on the bayou, I will never eat farm-raised seafood. I like that wild taste, and I can't imagine having to buy shrimp. It's always been given to me by family that trawls. Oh, and Blackend Catfish has a whole new meaning now.

    July 28, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
  4. Realist

    And all the mayonnaise plants are located all in the same place, just like you can't find tuna anywhere but in the fishing habats effected by the oil spill. How about a new outlet that reports facts, not opinoins. And one that doesn't use these words and phrases: Possibly, maybe, could be, might be, in my view, jo blow thinks, what if, it may or may not, it should be, perhaps, etc. Facts.

    July 28, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
  5. paul

    For an English 1101 class, this "article" rates a C-. C- you ask? Yes, and only that high becase the gramar was OK. It offered no substance, supportable facts, and who cares if there is no Mayo!

    July 28, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  6. CNN S*cks Hard

    Why are they using mayonnaise as an example and why do they have to go on and on about it? Half of this crappy story is about freaking mayonnaise when the whole point of it is SEAFOOD. Wow...

    July 28, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
    • It's James Bra

      That's what I was thinkin too. Morons.

      July 28, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  7. ohnos

    these news sites crack me up, they just make up crap to have something to post.

    July 28, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  8. bobington

    I now feel significantly dumber having read this article.

    July 28, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  9. Florida Jan

    Some of you just don't get it. When you are used to going down to the dock or calling a buddy for a bucket of shrimp or clams. Nothin else will do.

    July 28, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  10. Lone

    If you can make it with Soilent Green it'll never really truly be gone.

    July 28, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
  11. moondoggie

    Silly. I want a job with cnn. I can do better. Really. I can.

    July 28, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  12. whatnext

    Will oil spill cause CNN to flood their site with inane articles, and interviews with every Gulf resident who "survived" the spill? Oh yeah.

    July 28, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  13. metal demon

    This could make things a lot easier. At least you won't have to add oil when you're frying up your shrimp and fish, they'll already be full of it!

    July 28, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
  14. Rebeccah Cantley

    I live in Florida near the Gulf Coast and places like Apalachicola Bay, which is famous for its oysters and St. Joe Bay, which is full of scallops right now. The oil spill hasn't touched our seafood. I've been eating flounder, scallops and oysters from the bay all summer, and we still have fishing open along the coast. Other places along the Gulf have been more affected than our region; however, I think there is an incorrect perception that the oil spill is "the end" of Gulf Coast seafood.

    July 28, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
  15. Julie

    The one thing I'm going to miss is my mother oyster dressing during thanksgiving. All the oysters are dying and they ones from other states just dont taste the same. I just hope someday the oyster beds come back.

    July 28, 2010 at 2:00 pm |
    • It's James Bra

      Yuck, sounds pretty disgusting to me.

      July 28, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
      • Veev

        You really, really don't get it, do you? If you'd grown up with something, all your life, as had your parents and grandparents and their greatgrandparents, these special things are not going to be taken from you without a fight. There just IS no replacement.

        July 28, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  16. Andi

    The article is ludicrous. If you're going to do a story about something, write about IT, not something completely different! And why would recipes disappear? It's not like seafood suddenly became extinct, & there's none left to be found. Worst "fish story" ever.

    July 28, 2010 at 1:51 pm |
  17. Steve

    This has to be the stupidist article I've ever read on CNN. And that's saying a lot, considering how many stupid articles they post every day trying to stir people up for no reason. Does this mean if there's a drought in Iowa, we will no longer have any corn recipes on the planet??? Good grief....some editor needs to be fired for letting this one through.

    July 28, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  18. Squeezebox

    The recipes won't die, they'll adapt like they always have. Instead of wild caught seafood, Nawlins residents will have to make do with farm-raised like the rest of us for awhile. The fish will be blander, but it will still be there.

    July 28, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
    • Veev

      So, we're just going to go ahead and replace all your favorite brands – your toothpaste, soda, cheese and oh yeah, your beer, with generic versions for a while. They'll get the job done just as well. That okay with you?

      July 28, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
  19. Paul Ayo

    Our seafood will be back and I will not forget the recipes of this region. I may never cook it as well as my Grandma did but then again everyone has their own variations.

    July 28, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
  20. me_

    I am more worried about the increase in food prices for items other than fish that will be filling the void where the fish from the gulf was.

    July 28, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
  21. eatmeat

    thats why i eat steak n chicken.

    July 28, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  22. chadwood

    This article is preposterous.

    July 28, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  23. d landry

    I don't think we will ever lose our recipe's no matter what disaster we face.

    July 28, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
  24. Deacon

    Umm, this is a big miss on this section. I understand that you want us to be aware of the Gulf crisis but saying comparing it to a massive mayonnaise extinction... really? I think its a bit early to say its the end of seafood as we know it from the Gulf, recipes are not at stake. If anything the people of that area, and all coastal areas, know how to adapt. Heck, most of the recipes and dishes in their repertoire are adapted from classics around the world. They don't have shrimp for that etouffee then we can get use some fish sauce and double up on the some chicken. No lobster for random dish 17, then truck in some monkfish. I seriously doubt the people of the Gulf, will hang up their aprons and dream about missed truckloads of seafood when they can have a drink, and keep cooking and adapting and making the best of any situation. THAT is what cooking is ya know, doing what you can with what you go where you are at.

    July 28, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
  25. Sam Meyer

    Norman, who took care of me last week at the raw bar of the Acme Oyster House in New Orleans, told me that he wasn't nervous about the oil spill affecting the seafood industry. He did note, however, that his bosses and the restaurant owners were watching the situation carefully.

    I couldn't interview him more in depth, because then my po'boy arrived, and both my hands and mouth were full after that.

    July 28, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
  26. Steve

    Mobile Bay has opened to Shrimping again. There's still shrimp, crawfish, and catfish farms.

    Catfish Pecan Meuniere will still be alive, red beans and rice will still be kicking, what about the original staple of Cajun cooking? Gumbo! Gumbo is traditionally made with Chicken and Sausage, not seafood. It's the seafood one that has become more popular, but Chicken and Sausage is where it's at.

    Let us not forgot our Jambalya, especially at Coop's, where it's served with Chicken, Sausage and Rabbit.

    Can anybody live without Boudin? It's not made with seafood. Cajun cooking is more than it's seafood, we won't starve while we're waiting for the Seafood to populate.

    At any rate, the Seafood was an adaption to the recipes, because it was so prevalent.

    July 28, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
    • Barry

      I was just saying this the other day. Don't get me wrong. I already miss me some fried shrimp. But, I'm from Acadiana and most of our dishes don't have seafood. Besides, I don't really care for seafood gumbo or jambalaya. As long as they don't hurt my precious crawfish, I'll be just fine.

      July 28, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
  27. Robyn

    So true. Well written.

    July 28, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
  28. Stephen

    Just more over blown slippery slope arguments from CNN. The Gulf is not dead and will make a come back. Things might be different in the short term, but in the end things will come roaring back for the Gulf coast states, well maybe not deeper water drilling jobs...

    July 28, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
    • chris

      Stephen, I live in LA and was here for hurricane Katrina. I visit NOLA at least once a month . The argument that the south will just bounce back is insane. With Katrina the people that left the state for other regions of the south left the state crippled. The lack luster response from the Gov. left us all with a pit of hatred in our stomachs. My mother and father have saved there entire lives to buy a place in Grand Isle, La for a retirement home. Now with the oil that blots the beaches and the restritions on fishing that are in place many of the things my parents wanted for themselves are no longer there like the fishing, the seafood places and the beaches. Speaking about bouncing back with no personal experiences about the state is just wrong. Please dont get me started on the moratorium cause that has put half of my family out of jobs, and struggling to raise famililes.

      July 30, 2010 at 2:46 am |
  29. eric

    sorry... i never made it past the mayo part...

    July 28, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
    • mike

      yep, I stopped the second I saw that an asteroid hit the mayo factory...

      July 28, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
    • Foxy215

      LOL!! me either!!

      July 28, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
    • CNN S*cks Hard


      July 28, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
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