Wednesday, May 26, 2010


In July of 2008, just before I left Louisiana, I wanted to pay homage to a landscape and culture that I love deeply. On my mind, I had hurricanes and the nation’s inability to comprehend why south Louisianians infringe, as a way of life, stubbornly, proudly and dangerously, on flood zones and delicate wetlands. A month later, Country Roads Magazine published “Liquid Assets,” in which I tried to capture a snapshot of fishing camp culture.

Rereading the story today, I see it was a weak attempt to capture a big, big love. And hurricanes seem like small beasts compared to BP and the oil industry in general. The voice inside of me screams, “BP, clean up your f*ing mess.” Those words don’t make it out of my mouth.

We had dinner with friends recently, two more ex-Louisianians come to Austin. I said to them, rambling, pontificating, and asking forgiveness after:

Do you remember taking Louisiana history in 8th grade? Learning that when the Acadians first came from Nova Scotia, their need to adapt to the landscape gave rise to Cajun food, to an entire heritage? Remember learning that Creole cuisine came about similarly, when Europeans and natives to Caribbean islands adapted their culinary traditions to ingredients found in our landscape?

This oil spill won’t be over in a year or a few years. Its aftermath will be nothing like the aftermath of a hurricane, even of Katrina. Louisianians are going to have to adapt entirely and permanently. This is a massive cultural upheaval. We're not going to know precisely what our new culture looks like until 10, 15, maybe more years down the road.

My mother-in-law, on the phone yesterday, sounded weary. I asked about her camp in Cocodrie. “It’s not looking good. We haven’t been down, but we’ve talked to neighbors. I don’t know when we’ll make it down again. Even if we do, I don’t think we can catch crabs or fish off our pier like we’re used to doing.”

I remembered my first time at their old camp in Stevensville. There too, off of Four-Mile Bayou, they caught and boiled blue crabs. I sat with Chris’s family around a table covered with newspaper, steaming crabs poured and piled over the paper. My mother-in-law can peel crabs faster than her husband, her son (a skill about which Chris brags on his mother), her stepchildren and grandchildren. That late afternoon, she tried to teach me her tricks. Maybe she held out hope I’d learn; probably she just wanted to impress and tease me. There were a lot of both. I was a slow peeler. My mound of shells was paltry compared to everyone else’s. At the end of dinner, she took pity on me and shucked a few crabs, piled the meat high in front of me. I rested my clumsy fingers and swallowed down fresh, sweet crabmeat, now and again dipping it unnecessarily in warm butter while mosquitoes bit at my ankles, legs, bare arms. A backwater feast.

Generations of one family sitting together on the porch of a fishing camp situated along muddy bayous, or high up on stilts and overlooking bays that lead out to the Gulf, everyone eating a fresh catch of fried or broiled speckled trout, what will become of an ordinary summer Sunday as this? What of fishermen and shrimpers who supply, not just the state, but the nation? What of oyster harvesters, ironically, growing oyster colonies on old, unused oil rigs? What of men who, as their livelihood, take people out on gulf fishing expeditions?

BP, clean up your mess. But then what? I cannot help thinking that while Louisianians have a lot of work ahead to reinvent a culture, the oil industry will swoop in like vultures to become a much larger presence than the large presence it has already been.

Last Christmas, my mother-in-law made her traditional Christmas gumbo. I am always fingers-crossed that she'll do a seafood gumbo full of crabs caught at the camp and frozen for just this occasion, local oysters purchased from Tony's Seafood, side-of-the-road shrimp, also frozen and saved for the occasion, or every now and then, her own bounty from a summer shrimping trip.

In St. Charles Parish in the 1950s, Exxon oil refinery built employee housing that included a movie theater, weekend dances, a company sponsored community that swept residents and politicians off of their eager feet and provided jobs and the good life, all drenched in oil. Here we go again? Oil companies can pick at the bones of a state's ruined heritage, but people cannot eat oil, if sickly brown pelicans are any proof.

The Country Roads story, "Liquid Assets" is below.


  1. i know, it's so sad. i have a really bad feeling that they won't plug it for many more months.

  2. Thanks for this. It is the same really sad feelings that were there after Katrina for me, but I know that the effects will be around so much longer, so there really is a deeper sadness. It hurts in my stomach. I cannot even watch news anymore, I have to try to pretend that it is not real. It is so much more slow and painful, whereas Katrina was relatively quicker. Poor Louisiana. I remember reading your story. Keep it going...L