A different perspective on the Gulf disaster-an interview with Poppy Tooker
I was very fortunate today, to be able to have a conversation with Poppy Tooker, head of Slow Food New Orleans, host of the PBS television show Eat it to Save It and the newly launched Louisiana Eats radio show on WWNO, the National Public Radio station in New Orleans, and avid fisherwoman whose own fishing camp on the Gulf coast is now, sadly, surrounded by oil.
It was an especially timely interview, as just a couple of days ago P&J Oysters, a 134 year old family owned business announced that they would be shutting down their oyster shucking division, as there are not enough Gulf oysters to shuck. An aside here, as a child I remember my parents shopping for jars of P&J Oysters along Jefferson Avenue, the shopping outpost of expatriate New Orleanians in Los Angeles. Oysters always made an appearance in our turkey dressing at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and my family’s ground beef and oyster dressing remains my favorite to this day. One year, my mother for some reason, was unable to get P&J Oysters, and used California oysters instead. Upon tasting she promptly declared these California oysters “nasty”, and said they “ruined her dressing.”
Poppy said she could not say definitively at this time, what the future of P&J would be. “They are ruminating about importing oysters, wondering if there will be an immediate future as a boutique oyster supplier.”
What do you mean by that, I asked.
“Importing oysters from the East and West Coasts”, she responded.
Poppy offered perspectives that may differ from those of many of us in other parts of the country who join her in the outrage we feel over the BP Gulf oil spill. Her energy level rose as she talked of “overzealous people who say this is the last time we should be eating animals from the Gulf, or that we should be eating a vegan diet," referring to comments on a story posted at www.Grist.org.
“All of our shrimpers use the bycatch (including crabs, squid)-things that we eat, and they use very sophisticated technology and bycatch reduction devices.”
“In most cases, these businesses are multi-generational family businesses. Some of the oyster beds have been maintained for over 100 years.” She told me the story of an oyster man named Wilbert Collins. “This man went to work as a deck hand when he was very young. His father took over the business from his grandfather, and he took it over from his father, and now his sons…” her voice trailed off. “He has a sixth grade education. What will he do? And like he says, ‘this will be tied up in the courts ‘til I’m dead.’"
When I asked her what she had to say to people across the country, she passionately urged people to buy and eat wild Gulf seafood, if it’s available.
“You’re helping a family put a meal on their table. You’re helping them make a payment on boats they had to retool after Katrina.
She also had a different perspective to offer when I asked about the controversy brewing regarding the moratorium President Obama has enacted on deep water drilling.
“It’ll be the final blow if it goes on for 6 months. It would be one thing if we knew they were phasing out oil over a decade, but if you shut down oil, and there’s no shrimp in the Gulf… there’ll be a new dust bowl here. “
“There are so many layers to the business. Every family has someone in the oil business, whether it’s supplying oil rigs with food, or working on the rigs…it’ s completely intertwined.”
She added a desperate last declaration, “I mean, what do people come to New Orleans for- the food and the music. Well if you like the music, it’ll be one big unending jazz funeral.”
I asked her what she would say to politicians in Washington now, and to President Obama.
“It wasn’t that they didn’t have regulations,” she said her voice rising, “they weren’t enforcing them. The what do you call them”- the MMS , I offered “yes, the MMS (Mineral Management Service) and the government lobbyists were having one huge party.”
“It’s the same thing as Katrina. Our problem did not come from a hurricane, but from the Army Corps of Engineers. The drilling should be safe.”
“Make BP do the right thing. Make them continue the clean up. People are terrified-there’s a rumor floating around here today that BP could be preparing for bankruptcy, and if they file for bankruptcy, it might enable them to stop the clean up effort. It won’t reduce their eventual liability, but since the government has kept them in charge of the clean- what then would happen?”
And once again, “do not insist on a 6 month moratorium. It’s the worst thing that could happen. The coffin is built, the moratorium would firmly shut the nail on the coffin.”
And “coastal restoration is key. People will be owning waterfront property in Arkansas sooner than ever” if we don’t commit to that, she said as we ended our conversation.