Analysis: A Thanksgiving tradition, watered down
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Al Sunseri fondly remembers the days when, in addition to shipping out truckloads of oysters to the city’s finest restaurants, his business at the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter could also accommodate walk-in visits from neighbors seeking the main ingredient for a New Orleans Thanksgiving fixture — oyster dressing.
“We had a lot of people in the neighborhood that would just come in. They wouldn’t call ahead of time. They’d just stop in. We’d pack up a pint for them to go,” Sunseri recalled last week.
He still gets walk-ins. “But, generally, most of the time, I have to tell them no.”
Oysters have been harder to come by lately. And more expensive (Sunseri estimates the boat-to-table increase in recent years at 300 percent). P&J Oyster Company, the 143-year-old family business he runs with his brother and son now does little walk-in business. And the company no longer ships to out-of-towners eager for a taste of New Orleans. P&J has had to concentrate on supplying restaurants and hotels, making sure those regular, larger-scale customers are served.
P&J has had to cope with numerous problems, from hurricanes and tropical storms to the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
Now, the problem is the Mississippi River, which ran higher than usual for months this year, resulting in fresh water flowing into the saltier coastal areas where oysters would normally thrive.
“Fresh water and hot weather are a deadly combination,” said Carolina Bourque, Oyster Program Manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
In some areas, oyster mortality was 80 to 100 percent, said Bourque.
“They are sparse right now,” Bourque said of the oyster crop.
And they are pricey.
“The price has increased immensely due to a lack of product,” Bourque said.
For Sunseri, that’s meant working harder and sometimes going well beyond Louisiana and the Gulf Coast to fill orders. He said he’s at times ordered oysters from the Pacific Northwest or the East coasts.
He’s also filled orders with “off bottom oysters” — grown in floating enclosures, rather than harvested from reefs.
But that way of producing oysters is still young in Louisiana.
It’s got its advantages, Bourque said, including the fact that the enclosures can be moved when conditions are adverse. And the farmed oysters grow to market size in six months, in contrast to the 18 months or more it takes for oysters grown the more traditional way.
But the process of growing these “boutique oysters” also is labor intensive and expensive, said Bourque.
That method seems destined to grow in years ahead. Meanwhile, the overall picture for the availability of Louisiana oysters is “not looking good for at least this year,” she said.
The Thanksgiving season oyster situation isn’t entirely bleak.
Some publicly managed oyster gathering areas in Terrebonne and Calcasieu Parish are opening this month as oysters are deemed to have reached marketable size. The season at Calcasieu Lake opened Nov. 1, Bourque said. And Sister Lake opens for harvesting on Tuesday, she said.
And restaurateurs continue doing what they can.
After a monthslong absence, fried oysters were going back on the menu last week at Deanie’s Seafood in the New Orleans area, according to manager Jeff Young, who said dealing with the shortages have been a challenge.
Oyster dressing remains on the Thanksgiving catering menus of prepared foods at some groceries and restaurants — running from from $15 to nearly $20 a quart.
Price may be a reason some forego the favored dish.
“People have to make choices,” he said. “It used to be a food that anyone could eat, historically. You could get them on a street from a vendor all the way to the finest restaurants served with champagne.”
Now, tradition may be taking a backseat to economic concerns in some households.
“Someone that might have used gallons of oysters five years ago, 10 years ago might have decided, ‘Look, we’re just going to do cornbread dressing or shrimp dressing for Thanksgiving this year.’”
Editors’ note: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans.