Laissez les bons temps rouler! Eatocracy is in New Orleans this week getting ready for the second edition of our Secret Supper. We'll be sharing the people, purveyors and places that make this such a significant food town, and hope you'll join in with your questions, memories, restaurant suggestions and general bonhomie.
New Orleans (CNN) - Without a blink of hesitation, Renee Fish grabbed a squirmy-raw oyster off an iced platter in New Orleans and sloshed it into her mouth.
“It’s definitely the texture,” she said, her eyes lighting up at the experience of just having eaten a live mollusk from the Gulf of Mexico’s once-oily waters. “And they’re clean. They have a real silkiness. I try not to think about what other nasties could be in there.”
On a neon-lit night at the Acme Oyster House, Fish and her husband went on to order two-dozen raw oysters, a half-dozen charbroiled oysters and two “oyster shooters,” which are essentially vodka shots with oysters staring up from the bottom.
As for the oil spill: “It really didn’t even enter my mind.”
Signs of the molluscan renaissance are all around the city: At Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, famous charbroiled oysters are back on the menu after being replaced by mussels; Antoine’s Restaurant, home of Oysters Rockefeller, started serving Louisiana oysters again this month; “oyster loaves” - massive, fried “po’ boy” sandwiches - are available all over town; and, after a hiatus, Jacques-Imo’s Cafe is plopping “Cajun croutons” - another version of fried oysters - on top of its spinach salads.
“Right now, anywhere you go in New Orleans, you can have all the oysters you want,” said Tom Fitzmorris, a longtime restaurant critic here. “The price is a little higher. That’s the only evidence that this (oil disaster) ever happened.”
But getting oysters and other seafood back onto New Orleans tables has been an epic struggle for oyster farmers and chefs. In many ways, it’s a struggle that still continues.
Part of this has to do with the direct effects of the oil disaster.
After oil started gushing in April from a BP well a mile beneath the surface of the ocean, the state of Louisiana came up with a plan to keep the oil as far from its fragile coast as possible: It would flush fresh water into estuaries and streams, pushing back against the oil.
That move may have saved coastal marshes. But it had an unintended consequence: It probably killed many oysters, which thrive in water that is “brackish” - or part salty, part fresh.
Oil also encroached on some oyster habitat, preventing harvest. That’s a big deal in Louisiana, which produces 40% of the nation’s oysters, more than any other state, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA closed much of the Gulf to fishing after oil spewed from the bottom of the ocean in April. Only about 1,000 square miles of federal waters remain closed after the oil disaster, according to NOAA, which is down from a peak closure in June of 88,500 square miles. Oysters and other fish could not be harvested from areas where the government feared oil would affect food safety or quality.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration took charge of this seafood safety effort, using chemical tests to check for seafood safety and also employing humans with highly trained noses to sniff for petroleum contamination of the food.
With all of these precautions in place, any food that is legally harvested from the Gulf of Mexico is absolutely safe at this point, said Don Kraemer, an FDA seafood safety expert.
“If they’re buying commercially harvested seafood, there’s no reason to be worried about the effects of the spill on the safety of that seafood,” Kraemer said in an interview.
Some independent scientists, however, have criticized the FDA’s process, calling the smell tests junk science and saying the FDA isn’t testing for a wide enough range of contaminants. The FDA’s chemical tests look for only one line of potentially cancer-causing chemicals, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Others have citied what they see as alarming levels of compounds that can cause liver problems.
Kraemer dismissed those claims, saying those lipids are found naturally in the fat of many fish and other seafood species - something he said the studies don’t account for.
And he’s “dumbfounded” by criticism of the FDA’s sensory tests.
“They truly were experts,” Kraemer said of the human smell testers, who were trained specifically on the scents of Gulf oil spill. “And quite frankly, the sensory test is even more sensitive than most of the chemical analyses. The human nose is an incredible sensory organ. It can pick up odors that are extremely faint when it’s properly trained.”
Then there are the lingering long-term questions.
No one knows for sure what effects the oil spill will have on fish, oyster and shrimp reproduction over coming years, said Julie Olson, assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Alabama. “If you look at previous oil spills that have gone on throughout history, while we’ve gained a lot of information, we’re still in our infancy in terms of understanding the long-term effects,” she said.
The public seems to have ignored the nuance of this debate, choosing instead to translate images of oiled pelicans and dead dolphins into fear of food from the entire Gulf.
A December survey by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board found that more than seven in 10 people express “some level of concern” about eating seafood from the Gulf of Mexico after the oil disaster. In July, three months after the event started, more than 90% of people surveyed expressed such reluctance.
The perception that Gulf seafood is unsafe is perhaps the single biggest challenge for the oyster industry, said Ewell Smith, executive director of the seafood marketing board. His group is using $30 million from BP, which has claimed responsibility for the disaster, to try to “rebrand” Gulf seafood as safe and delicious, he said.
Surveys show that people who live far away from the Gulf Coast are more fearful of Gulf seafood than locals, but not everyone in New Orleans is willing to eat local seafood.
“I just doesn’t feel safe,” said Kerry Seaton Stewart, owner of Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a fried chicken restaurant in New Orleans that stopped serving fish after the oil spill. “I was a big raw oyster eater - I just haven’t eaten it since,” she said.
While many New Orleans restaurants again are offering oysters, others are so unsure of seafood supplies that they’re changing the menu by the day.
This is true of Dooky Chase, a Cajun restaurant in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood. After rebuilding from scratch after Hurricane Katrina, the restaurant had to adopt a paper menu after the oil spill, since high-quality seafood isn’t always available.
“As the seafood industry goes, really, so do we,” said Edgar L. “Dooky” Chase Jr., the restaurant’s 82-year-old, second-generation owner, who squints as he talks, as if he’s in the middle of playing a trumpet solo. “It’s like a quarterback. It’s the quarterback of culinary food in New Orleans.” Chase said his restaurant is developing a new menu that will not lean as heavily on seafood, so that it can adapt to changing times.
People who harvest and sell oysters seem to be hurting worse than those who serve them on white-tablecloth settings, where the effects of the disaster aren’t as obvious.
On the streets of the city’s vibrant French Quarter, which once were made of crushed oyster shells, Al Sunseri still arrives at the headquarters of the P & J Oyster Co. at 3:30 each morning. He’s determined to keep business going even though P & J - the oldest oyster wholesaler in the county, in operation since 1876 - doesn’t have enough business to process oysters in its warehouses.
The company headquarters sits in a chilled silence, pierced only by the hum of refrigerators that keep the few oysters the company has at a preservative 33 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I kind of feel like a cork bobbing in the water,” Sunseri said of the limbo the oil spill has put him in. He comes to work every day just to keep moving - to try to start something.
“It’s hard to change a leopard’s spots,” he said.
Sunseri and other oyster wholesalers in Louisiana say they’re buying the majority of their oysters from Gulf Coast states other than Louisiana, because so many oysters were killed here and because some of the oyster grounds are still closed in this state.
The Louisiana oyster harvest was down 50% in 2010, during the oil spill, compared with an average of the four previous years, according to data provided by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries. Wholesalers like P & J and Motivatit Seafood, out of Houma, Louisiana, say about half of the oysters they sell come from outside the state.
Restaurants are passing along these non-Louisiana oysters to customers, sometimes with a disclaimer that they aren’t local, and sometimes not.
For example, Fish, the vacationing taxidermist from Michigan who was slurping down raw oysters at a New Orleans oyster bar, may not have known that, according to restaurant staff, the oysters she was eating came from Texas.
It didn’t matter much. Fish and her husband, on vacation for his 40th birthday, said they saw tar balls washing up on the beaches of Grand Isle, Louisiana, earlier that day, and they still weren’t at all concerned about the quality of oysters from that ocean.
Fish said she trusted chefs to protect her from the bad stuff.
And anyway, it’s the “gross factor” that attracts her to oysters in the first place.