Of Majesty and Bounty on an Imperiled Coast

New Orleans, La. – 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 fed with oil.

As we drove on to the fishing dock, Kerrigan told me this: "There's not much majesty here. But don't worry, there's plenty of bounty."

Later, as our boat filled with plump red snapper as quickly as we could reel them in, and as we brought gleaming, 40-pound amberjacks to deck with the steady rhythm of a bucket brigade, the depth of that bounty rang out.

For someone like me, who learned about Gulf seafood primarily by eating in New Orleans restaurants, this trip offshore was a powerful revelation. It was a view into the supply side of our city's celebrated food culture, which is also visible on inland fishing trips through marshes and by watching commercial oystermen, crabbers and shrimpers at work across south Louisiana.

As we've all heard, the essential character of New Orleans cuisine comes in part from the commingling of different cultures, the talents of chefs and the verve of certain restaurateurs. 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. They are typically remote, however, and these vast spreads of wetlands and amorphous, inaccessible stretches of coast can be hard to grasp. There are no culinary awards for great fishermen nor are the epic Louisiana fishing spots honored with plaques, though without them our cuisine surely would be quite different.

This is the natural heritage imperiled by the oil eruption unleashed by April's BP rig explosion. And while my friend Kerrigan was right that the dockside environs in places like Venice do lack scenic majesty, they are the end-of-the-road gateways to the stunning splendor beyond, the areas that make south Louisiana so fruitful and so ecologically vital.

For now, at least, the majority of Louisiana's coastal fishing areas are still open for business. Industry leaders say the unaffected areas along the coast and on inland waters not directly touched by the BP catastrophe 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 substitutes. 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.