Posted by Robert Morris
One of the several usual questions I get from tourists at our shop (aside from, “did it flood here?”) is about the quality of Gulf seafood these days. It should be an assumption that I would not bring out anything I’m not comfortable serving. But maybe they just like to hear it from the guy who actually prepares it, I dunno. Here’s how I feel about it.
I’ve been very pleased with the Gulf shrimp we’ve gotten into the shop lately. They’re plump, tasty and wonderful. I look at them carefully every time I open up a new box. I trust our purveyors to not send us anything that doesn’t look and smell right and, so far, they’ve been true. The state hasn’t put out anything that raises an alarm, and consumer protection is what they’re all about, right? Of course, the seafood industry says everything is Just. Fine. Really. Seriously.
On the other hand, Alabama has closed some of its waters to shrimping (“shrimp size” is the issue, they say — pollution has nothing to do with it). Professional fishing guides on our coast say the oil is still visible in the marshes, even after two years. Seafood folks in Barataria Bay say they’re catching loads of shrimp with no eyes or even eye sockets. Fish are being caught with unexplained black lesions. From all I can gather, things are seriously weird and wrong out there. At least in some places.
Seafood has always been an iffy industry, similar to farming dryland cotton in its vulnerability to all sorts of pests, diseases, weather events and whatnot. I love the Gulf and I love that my kids were raised as beach rats. I love swimming in the Gulf, when I get the rare chance to do so anymore, and I hated having to give up my sailboat in Panama City, but I just didn’t get the chance to go sail anymore. When I die, dump my ashes in the Mississippi so they can flow into the Gulf. Please.
But my youngest son, who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., says they now get tarballs on their beaches, just as they do in the Florida Panhandle, Alabama and in Mississippi. Entire several-generation families on our own coast can’t make a living from the Gulf anymore, even if they’d only take people fishing from time to time. As my dad used to say, “ain’t right.”
Part of my menu is made up of Gulf seafood. Do I trust it? So far, yes — based on personal observation. Do I trust those who tell me it’s safe? Not on your freaking life. There’s too much money and spin involved. I have to assume I’m being lied to on several levels. Maybe that’s not the case. But the world is what it is and I have to be honest with myself and, more importantly, my customers.
When I left the shop this evening, things were good. Hopefully, they will be tomorrow. But tomorrow ain’t here yet.
Things are seriously weird and wrong out there in the Gulf of Mexico — at least in parts of it. I wouldn’t get so worked up if I thought there was some kind of honest monitoring going on. Maybe there is, but I can guarantee you a highly-paid someone is going to try to shout down anything negative. I wouldn’t mind if those responsible would admit they screwed up and they really don’t know what’s going on out there and they really, really want to fix it. But no — instead we get Olympic sponsorships and PR shills telling us about BP’s wind farms.
My opinions can sometimes run me afoul of good friends I have in the seafood, restaurant, grocery and tourism promotion industries. But I cannot in good conscience simply jump into the “c’mon down, things are just fine” pool anymore when it comes to Gulf seafood. The only one I trust is me. I need to open each box to look at it and sift it with my own hands and smell it with my own nose. Reputable places do this. Particularly now.
As a consumer, you should ask questions and, if need be, be a pain in the ass. Any chef worth his/her apron won’t mind this kind of scrutiny if they’re serious about any sort of quality in their operation.
…but it’s a shame you’d even have to consider it. Things are not OK. At all.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes, and is now in charge of the kitchen at The Blind Pelican on St. Charles Avenue. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.