My friend Mike Kerrigan read my thoughts clearly during my first trip to Venice, La., last summer. We were on our way to an offshore fishing charter, and he drove while I gazed through his truck's windshield at the stark, industrial picture Venice presents to visitors arriving by land.
Despite the picturesque name, Venice is a utilitarian spot supporting the offshore oil patch and commercial and recreational fishing. With bunkhouses and lodges, metal buildings, heliports, storage tanks and fuel docks, it serves as a beachhead for people who reap what nature provides off the Louisiana coast, whether to stock their own freezers, supply restaurant kitchens or keep the American economy supplied with oil.
"There's not much majesty here," Kerrigan said as we drove toward the fishing dock. "But don't worry, there's plenty of bounty."
Later, our boat filled with plump red snapper as quickly as we could reel them in, and as we brought gleaming, silvery, 40-pound amberjacks to deck with the steady rhythm of a bucket brigade, the depth of that bounty rang out.
For someone who learned about Gulf seafood primarily through meals in New Orleans restaurants and who makes his living writing about those meals, this trip offshore was a powerful revelation. It was a view into the supply side of our region's celebrated food culture, part of an education I've been pursuing on the water for some time, along with inland fishing trips through marshes around St. Bernard Parish and outings to watch commercial oystermen, crabbers and shrimpers at work across south Louisiana.
The commingling of diverse cultures, the talents of chefs and the verve of certain restaurateurs have been essential to the character of New Orleans cuisine — our gift to the world and to ourselves — but so much of that cuisine was first made possible by the rambunctiously fecund waters and delicate wetland ecosystems that begin at the very edges of our city and spread into the blazing blue of the Gulf.
These areas set the stage for our food culture and provide the raw materials, which any oyster barfly knows is often all you need. They are typically remote, however, and these vast spreads of wetlands and difficult to accress stretches of coast can be hard to grasp. There are no James Beard Awards for great fishermen nor are the epic Louisiana fishing spots honored with historical markers or plaques, though without them our cuisine surely would be different.
This is the natural heritage imperiled by the oil eruption unleashed by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig used by British Petroleum. And while my friend Kerrigan was right that the dockside environs in places like Venice — or Hopedale or Delacroix deep in the marsh — lack scenic majesty, they are the end-of-the-road gateways to the stunning splendor that makes coastal Louisiana so fruitful and so ecologically vital.
At this writing, Louisiana's coastal fishing areas to the west of the Mississippi River are still open for business, and fishermen continue working the lakes and inner estuary areas unaffected by the ongoing disaster. The Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board says the unaffected areas account for about 77 percent of the state's seafood production. Further, Louisiana restaurateurs and grocers will be able to find substitute product from around the world if they so choose, as many of them have been doing for many years anyway.
But the grandeur of New Orleans cuisine did not come from a reliance on imported seafood. It came from the waters and wetlands at our doorstep, and the people who work them. That is what must be defended and made right, for the bounty we see on our plates and for the majesty of life embedded in its unseen miles.