By Lolis Eric Elie
We've consumed a lot of oysters on 'Treme,' perhaps most notably in the scene at Mosca's Restaurant. There C.J. Liguori (Dan Ziskie) schools Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda) in the finer points of disaster capitalism and appreciating the restaurant's signature dish, Oysters Mosca. But like too many New Orleanians, we may be guilty of focusing too much on how oysters taste and not enough on where they come from. Thanks to the drug rehab program that bass man Cornell Williams has devised for Sonny (Michiel Huisman), we do get a glimpse into the oystering life as it is practiced in Plaquemines Parish, La.
That place has become an important reference for me. Sometimes when I try to explain to folks that Hurricane Katrina was not responsible for the near destruction of New Orleans (the levee failures bear that responsibility), I contrast what happened in Plaquemines Parish with what happened in New Orleans. The parish sticks right out into the Gulf of Mexico; it's the toe of the Louisiana boot. Since hurricanes gain strength over water and lose strength over land, the parish was hit with the full fury of the storm. Few houses survived there. But by the time Katrina made it to New Orleans it was weaker. Most houses here were damaged but not destroyed.
"We got devastated by Katrina," said Byron Encalade, the president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association. "We had 25 feet of water. There was nothing left. Everything you see was put down after Katrina except a handful of houses."
I met Byron shortly after Hurricane Katrina. He hails from a fishing and oystering family. "When I was a little boy I remember handing cotton to my grandfather while he built boats in the yard, underneath the oak tree," Encalade recalled. "My dad bought me my first boat when I was about 13 years old. One side of my family was mostly oystermen and shrimpers, and the other side was mostly farmers and shrimpers."
Byron himself appears only briefly in our scenes on the water. But the character of Uncle Don (John Beasley) is a fictionalized member of the Encalade family. And Terence Rosemore, who plays NOPD Deputy Chief Marsden, is Byron's first cousin.
Though the oyster industry has largely recovered from the impact of Katrina and the other hurricanes that followed it, a new pair of threats has emerged. The BP oil spill has crippled the industry. More recently, the threat of Mississippi River flooding has led to the opening of spillways to divert the threatening waters. But the diversion of that water may harm the oysters.
The Louisiana Oystermen Association is one of a coalition of groups that have formed GO FISH (Gulf Organized Fisheries in Solidarity & Hope) to confront these threats to their industry and way of life. Outsiders tend to see the devastation of the Gulf of Mexico as a matter of profit and loss. The oystermen see it differently.
"We're losing our most valuable resource: our people. Our children are leaving because they don't see any future in the way of life on the bayou. A lot of times they come back because there're no jobs out there," said Encalade.
"Our ability to feed ourselves off the land has always been our strength as a nation. This is another step toward losing that. We focus a lot on endangered species, but these communities are in danger now."