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Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.'”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans — including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . .  is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.

They’ll have to wait another year.

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