Thanksgiving conjures all sorts of images deeply entwined with the American identity, even if across this vast and diverse country they differ from the holiday's founding lore. But when it comes to the traditional spirit of Thanksgiving, New Orleans is perhaps more in tune than usual this year.
The reason is food — that great cross-cultural medium for holiday celebrations — and in particular our seafood. I suspect New Orleanians will be eating more Gulf seafood this holiday season, and giving thanks that we can.
It wasn't long ago that some local cooks frantically crammed their freezers with shrimp or made batches of seafood stock they hoped to stretch from here to evermore, fearing oil from BP's damaged Macondo well could change Gulf seafood as we knew it. No one knows the full impact of the oil disaster yet, and we'll be measuring and monitoring the outcome for years. But seven months after the blowout, there's cause for relief in the simple fact that we can buy local shrimp for mirliton casseroles, make crab cakes with local product and, yes, even though their supply remains tenuous, we can get local oysters for oyster dressings.
Supply is only one part of the equation, however. For our seafood industry to endure, there must be demand for it. Some would-be travelers believed New Orleans remained flooded for years after Hurricane Katrina, despite any measure of logic or tourism marketing efforts. In the same way, it seems inevitable that some will eschew Gulf seafood despite the testing backing up the industry's assurances of safety.
That's why it's important for people who care about local seafood — and its role in our economy and our culture — to support its underpinnings. This means the people who earn their livings bringing it to our plates and projecting its image in the marketplace.
Efforts are underway at both official and grassroots levels to give a boost. The New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau and local chefs have been hosting big-name culinary professionals from other cities since the spill, introducing them to local fishermen and seafood suppliers, taking them fishing in the Gulf and cooking their catches together. It's all in the hopes that these restaurant industry heavies will be stirred by the quality and heritage of this bounty and share that excitement back home.
Another campaign underway is called Dine America 2010 (see details in Food News), which invites restaurants across the country to promote Gulf seafood on special menus served on Dec. 1. Susan Nash of the New Orleans marketing firm Culinary Strategies conceived the event as a national night of solidarity for our seafood and a chance for chefs to demonstrate their confidence in its goodness.
Of course, the damage BP caused to our seafood industry can't be repaired overnight. But such efforts will help, and it seems Thanksgiving brings another opportunity to further the cause in our homes. Ensuring that local seafood has a place on the New Orleans holiday table this year is a chance to lend our support and add a fresh layer of meaning to our own holiday observance. After all, those traditional American images of Thanksgiving focus on the harvest, and today we can give thanks to many that there is a Gulf seafood harvest at all.