June 2010 / America's Third Coast
Leonard Earl Johnson
NEW ORLEANS, 2010 -- It's official -- the oil is coming ashore. Not in great black waves. In smaller globs and of course the well-known rainbow sheen seen in mud puddles and now in a patch big as Texas out in the Gulf of Mexico below New Orleans, near the Mouth of the Mississippi River.
The question is, will this unprecedented disaster develop into something as big as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in 2005? Those gigantic hurricanes washed away coastal small towns from Alabama to Texas. They flooded 80 per cent of New Orleans, and caused the more-or-less total evacuation of a great American city, something not seen since Sherman burned Atlanta. The economic wreck was huge.
Will that -- or worse -- now happen because of this volcano of oil gushing up from the ocean's floor over one mile below the surface?
No one here knows, of course. But everyone worries.
In iconic restaurants, just back from the grave's edge after '05, waiters mumble and executive chefs avoid the press. In one exception, at the fabulously good Atchafalaya on Louisiana Avenue, owners Anthony Tocco and Rachael Jaffe stood outside the door with a few departing diners sniffing the oil-fumed night air. Tocco said it all: "We are not a steak house."
Herbsaint is a jewel of foodie fun on Saint Charles Avenue, near Lafayette Park and Gallier Hall. The City's new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, was being sworn in at Gallier Hall and free hot dogs, hamburgers and cotton candy were being given away in the park.
Serious eaters passed up the free food in Lafayette Square for haute cuisine by masters at Herbsaint. C. E. O. and Executive Chef Donald Link was in New York receiving a James Beard award. He never got back with us for a comment. But his waiters and the other customers all expressed grave concern for their jobs and the whole New Orleans economy.
"People come here to eat like they don't back home," diner Joni Friedmann told us. That's not the only thing they do in New Orleans that they don't do back home, but that's another story.
A few days later we boarded Amtrak's Sunset Limited bound for Lafayette, the Hub City of Louisiana's famed Cajun Country. It is also the intellectual center of the Gulf oil supply industry. Such names as Halliburton modestly hang on shingles amid others that provide helicopter services, and food services, and those steel container boxes fitted out for housing on the oil rigs.
The air in Acadiana is clean and fresh. The people held out hope that the coffer dam being placed over the volcano of oil this weekend will stanch the flow.
On Mother's Day there was not a table to be found in any restaurant in Lafayette. The economy boomed here before and after Katrina and Rita, because of the very oil operations now turned so destructive off the coast. Before oil there was fishing. In time there may be neither. Though no one thinks that time is today.
On the train, few had seemed concerned about the oil leak, though everyone in the course of our three-and-a-half hour ride mentioned it. We peered out windows for signs of oil in the wide rivers dumping the Bayou State's bayous into the Gulf. We saw none.
But then news filtered down to Mother's Day diners that the four-story tall coffer dam constructed in nearby Golden Meadow had not been successful in cutting off the oil flow. At Don's Downtown, "The Original Cajun Restaurant," according to the banner over the door, one elderly lady told us her mother knew nothing of oil prosperity.
"She lived off rice and sugar. I guess we could do it again," she said, "But not like we live now." Can't argue with that.
Leonard Earl Johnson is a former cook, merchant seaman, photographer and columnist for Les Amis de Marigny, a New Orleans monthly magazine. Columns past, present and future are at http://www.LEJ.org/.
This story is the first of a series on the British Petroleum oil leak for Consumer Affairs.com. For more go to ConsumerAffairs.com
Copyright, 2010, Leonard Earl Johnson