Reporting from the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium: The Gulf and the Spill

At the Southern Foodways Alliance annual symposium this week, Brett Anderson of the New Orleans Times-Picayune moderated a panel discussion on "The Gulf and the Spill."

Panelists were former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh (also my dad), Chef Adolfo Garcia of New Orleans and Jim Gossen, CEO of Louisiana Foods. Gossen remembered that when the spill started, he got calls from people he'd never sold to before, wanting to buy ten thousand pounds of shrimp to stock up on. "Prices went way up," he said, "but we had to limit that and make sure to take care of our existing customers."

As it became clear that the spill wasn't going away and questions of food safety arose, restaurants with Gulf seafood on the menu began considering imports.

Adolfo Garcia, chef of New Orleans "seafood destination" Rio Mar, said that about four weeks into the crisis, "there was a cricket in the dining room that you could never hear before." Although he said many people made switches to imported shrimp from South America or Thailand, Rio Mar decided to keep buying Louisiana seafood. "People come to New Orleans for a reason, and that isn't to eat seafood from somewhere else."

Walsh, who wrote Sex, Death and Oysters, explained that oysters are one of the biggest concerns because "they can't swim away; they're kind of stuck there--literally." He explained that while oystermen in Grand Isle are worried that surface oil might cut off the oxygen supply for today's oysters, there's also concern about long-term effects. "They're talking about closing the public oyster leases in Louisiana, which oystermen use to seed their own beds with," Walsh said. "If the beds aren't seeded this year, it's going to be a big problem next year."

Testing of Texas leases shows no oil problems, but with a fraction of the oysters that Louisiana produces each year, it's speculated that the Texas crop will be gone by Christmas. "It's going to be a tough year to get oysters," Walsh said.

But the spill also presents great opportunity for Gulf seafood. Walsh said he and Gossen are working with Louisiana and Texas oyster producers on revamping the way their product is marketed. Galveston Bay oystermen are selling oysters at 15-20 cents per, while in Cape Cod and Canada they go for 80 cents to a dollar. In order to bring the price up, Walsh and Gossen are proposing the adoption of marketing techniques the rest of the country's using, boxing select oysters and labeling them with place names like "Pepper Grove" rather than selling them in bags labeled "Area 137."

During comments from the audience, Director of the Mississippi Seafood Marketing Program Irvin Jackson said they're working hard to reassure the public that their seafood is safe. "We're not just doing smell tests, we're testing the water, the ocean floor, and tissue samples--and all have passed," Irvin said. "I eat it. I feed it to my family. It's the best seafood in the world."

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