Monday, September 12, 2005

My Coast

Down around Biloxi
Pretty girls are dancin' in the sea
They all look like sisters in the ocean
The boy will fill his pail with salty water
And the storms will blow from off towards New Orleans

-- Jimmy Buffett

The Gulf Coast is my second home. I grew up one hour due North; in the Piney Woods of Hattiesburg, Miss. But my childhood summers were spent on the Gulf.

In my youth, I spent countless hours fishing, shrimping, and crabbing in the Mississippi Sound— usually more interested in catching the saltwater bounty than eating it. My adult years have been filled cooking the plenteousness the warm, Gulf waters has to offer.

Cooking and eating on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is unlike that in any other place. There is a certain reverence attached to the process. A definite pride is taken in the simple practice of boiling shrimp or picking crabmeat. Sharing a meal of fresh out-of-the-water seafood is a pleasure many in this country, especially those who are landlocked, never enjoy. It is one, I am sad to say, I have taken for granted.

Today, the coast, as I knew it, is gone.

Hurricane Camille, the gold standard for storms in this area, swept through in ’69 and made a clean sweep of the Coast. Long-standing restaurants and cafes were instantly wiped out. Many were rebuilt. The casinos blew in 20 years later, and bellwether institutions such as Baricev’s and Fisherman’s Warf gave way to behemoth structures filled with blue hairs flown up on junkets from Tampa, playing nickel slots and smoking Salem Lights. Through it all, the food remained.

Food is the common bond.

My Jackson friends, Ben and Dero Puckett, owned one of those century-old majestic homes on Scenic Highway 90 in Pass Christian. For the last 35 summers the Puckett’s have spent Memorial Day through Labor Day in that beautiful and stately home. It was purchased just a few months before Camille blew in. Ben rode out that storm in a second floor closet. Just weeks ago I ate my first lunch in that house. The Pucketts prepared a beautiful meal of crabmeat au gratin, fresh fruit, and a cold shrimp salad— a true Gulf Coast feast.

Seafood is the lifeblood of the area.

Today, more than 50 percent of the restaurants in the three-county stretch, from the Louisiana state line to the Alabama border, are gone. Another 15-20 percent of restaurants in that area sustained major damage and may be out of business for up to six months. All of the other dining establishments on the Coast received, at the least, minor damage.

Upon returning from a three-day trip to the hurricane-ravaged area, Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, stated, “There were two things that made a lasting impression on me. The first was the absolute vicious power and enormous size of the storm. The Mississippi Gulf Coast was devastated. The second was the incredible attitude of our restaurant brothers and sisters. In the midst of death, destruction and despair, the restaurant industry, TO A PERSON, showed nothing but compassion for their community and fellow human beings.”

It’s not just restaurateurs, it is everyone. It has been said that only in times of crisis do we discover the true strength of a community.

While eating what would turn out to be my last meal in the Puckett house, I thought back to all of the summer lunches that must have been shared in that dining room, all of the shrimp that had been boiled in the kitchen, children, and later, grandchildren who splashed in the salt water just across the street. A row of brick steps— and memories— are all that remain.

My coast is now a world of brick steps without porches, concrete slabs without houses, fishermen without boats, and restaurateurs without buildings.

However, Mississippians are a resilient people. Our forefathers came to this area— machete in hand— and fought mosquitoes, tics, horseflies, rabid animals, malaria, encephalitis, Lyme disease, stifling clouds of pine pollen and scorching heat. We have endured war and occupation, floods, storms, depression, recession, tornadoes, hurricanes, all manner of natural and manmade disasters, and we are still here. We have taken the worst of what life and nature has given us and we have prevailed.

In the not too distant future, we will once again share a meal of fresh-from-the-water seafood. Restaurateurs are a hearty lot. The next Baricev’s or McElroy’s will open their doors ready to feed the world. Mary Mahoney’s is still standing, others will rise.

We will prevail.

Sun shines on Biloxi
Air is filled with vapors from the sea
Boy will dig a pool beside the ocean
He sees creatures from his dream underwater
And the sun will set from off towards New Orleans

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