Vermilionaire

An excerpt from Food Producers and their Place-Based Foods at Risk in the Gulf Coast produced by Renewing America's Food Traditions
By Gary Paul Nabhan, Leigh Belanger and Regina Fitzsimmons
Photography courtesy of Pableaux Johnson, Poppy Tooker, Roberto San Miguel

Vermilionaire is also the title of a recording by the Lost Bayou Ramblers, a Cajun band from Louisiana whose title track is a traditional song about going down to the bayou to fish, hunt, trap and never die of hunger.

As oil poured beneath the surface of the water in the Gulf of Mexico and made its way to the coast, the families that have lived in close connection to the Gulf’s unique habitat continue to be threatened by both man-made and natural pressures. 

All along the coast, from the Florida Keys to the mouth of the Rio Grande on the Texas-Mexico border, folks like the Vermilionaires have been forced from their homelands as their jobs have been lost, their lands flooded or contaminated and their properties ruined. Among them, we find some of the most marginalized peoples in the United States: long-term residents such as the Houma, Cajun, Creole, Seminole, Miccosukee, African, Cuban, “Cracker,” Choctaw and Creek, as well as immigrants from Sicilian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Central American and Mexican ethnic enclaves.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has already been called the worst man-made disaster in the history of the United States. But even that label does not capture all the dimensions of this tragedy. Since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September of 2005, to the recent efforts to mop up oil covering an area greater than the size of Connecticut, some of the rural, food-producing counties of the Louisiana’s Gulf Coast have lost half of their former residents. They have felt forced to leave the state in search of better, safer opportunities elsewhere. Due to these disasters, human lives—as well their traditional relationships with their plant and animal neighbors—have changed forever.

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Our concern here is twofold: First and foremost, to avoid the loss of livelihoods for the culturally diverse food producers who live near the Gulf of Mexico, who are already feeling their access to fish, shellfish and waterfowl limited by the spill. Second, to stop the loss of the many wild species and domesticated food varieties upon which the remaining inhabitants of the Gulf Coast nutritionally, economically and ecologically depend.

Among the many long-term consequences from the oil spill will be a pervasive disruption of some of the most unique farming, fishing, hunting and culinary communities left on the planet—not only in the Gulf Coast states of the United States, but also in Mexico and Cuba as well. These communities deserve what we might call “environmental and food justice,” since our government agencies have been both slow and inefficient in protecting their basic human needs.

Many former Gulf Coast residents who farmed or gardened literally left jars of their family’s heirloom vegetable seeds in sheds and cupboards to rot or slowly die, breaking a chain of agricultural transmission of seeds and knowledge that began centuries ago. Some of the remaining  gardeners and farmers also happen to be part-time fishermen, oyster harvesters, gator hunters or shrimpers, and they now see other perils looming on their horizon as fishing areas are closed and important spawning grounds are in danger of contamination by the oil and chemicals used to control its spread.

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Working the land and water, these people—with their minds, eyes, hands and backs—have fed much of America for centuries. The overwhelming majority of shrimp harvested in the United States come from the Gulf of Mexico and its adjacent estuaries and rivers. Well over 120 fish species are commercially harvested along the Gulf Coast—from drum, flounder and sheepshead, to countless populations of crawfish, crabs, oysters and clams—each with a distinctive flavor. Over 70 percent of all ducks and geese that migrate through the heartlands of North America depend upon stopover sanctuaries in the coastal wetlands of the Gulf. Many of America’s most unique foods—from crawfish jambalaya, Creole cream cheese and Gumbo filé, to Apalachicola oysters, Pineywoods beef and Tabasco peppers—are rooted in Gulf Coast traditions.

One key way to help the people and ecosystems of the Gulf Coast recover from yet another catastrophe, is by actively purchasing and promoting their food products during this time of uncertainty. Fishermen will not sell oil-contaminated or otherwise threatened species. Rather, they desperately need income from the remaining foods that they are able to safely harvest. Poppy Tooker’s rallying cry of “Eat It To Save It” for neglected (but not necessarily federally protected) foods, has perhaps never been more fitting. If we want a diversity of healthy foods on our tables, we need to support the food producers who have been tenacious in providing them, or they will turn to other sources of income to make ends meet. Farmers will cull the rare varieties out of their orchards or fields if there is no market for them; fishermen will set sail for the more marketable catch elsewhere if no one values the knowledge and skill they invest in coaxing the most delicious foods from the waters they know best.

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The list of edible species and varieties at risk in the Gulf Coast foodshed created for this article includes both those potentially affected by the spill on a massive scale (“oil-damaged”), and those that were already of conservation concern before the April 10, 2010 Macondow blow-out, 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast. The list of foods at risk includes 241 distinctly-named stocks, varieties, species and subspecies found in the Gulf, its bayous, and surrounding fields, forests, pastures and orchards.

Of those 241 place-based foods, experts anticipate that access to at least 138 will be directly affected by the oil spill. In other words, more than half of the distinctive foods associated with world-famous Creole and Cajun cuisines are being put at further risk by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, even though many of them had not yet fully recovered from the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

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Aside from investing your buying power as a consumer in the market recovery of fishing and farming in the Gulf Coast, we encourage you to give what donations you can to some of the organizations listed below. We also urge you to support a new initiative we are proposing to designate New Orleans a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, because its intangible culinary heritage is now in urgent need of safeguarding. So let’s vote with our mouths, bellies and pocketbooks for the speedy recovery of the food-producing cultures dependent on the health of the Gulf of Mexico, for their culinary traditions are clearly an irreplaceable component of our World Heritage. The Vermilionaires are in danger of losing their riches.

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• Crescent City Farmers Market (crescentcityfarmersmarket.org) and White Boot Brigade (whitebootbrigade.org)
• Cultural Resource Institute of Acadiana (criala.org)
• Southern Foodways Alliance (southernfoodways.com)
• Catch Shares in Gulf of Mexico/Texas Program of Environmental Defense (edf.org)
• Save Our Wetlands (saveourwetlands.org)
• Southern Seed Legacy (uga.edu/ebl/ssl)
• Pineywoods Cattle Registry and Breeders Association (pcrba.org)

Click here to download the PDF of the full edition of RAFTS’s Food Producers and their Place-Based Foods at Risk in the Gulf Coast.