Often overlooked among the world’s great bodies of water, our Gulf of Mexico has been in the news in three ways lately: two positive, one not so good. On the upbeat side there are the renewed talks to open trade between the United State and Cuba. Then, too, there’s the growing cruise boat activity from New Orleans to the Gulf and Caribbean destinations.
Cuba is not one of them, but maybe it will soon be. To the negative there was the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil platform disaster, which recently reached its fifth anniversary with rumors of tar on the beaches still aplenty.
If anything good can come out of the catastrophe it might be that it will bring more appreciation for the importance of the Gulf and its estuary life. We also hope that the newfound attention from the other events will also draw more recognition to the Gulf, and its rim, as a setting for a cultural bounty.
Quick now, which Gulf city is best known for the richness of its culture, history, cuisine and music? New Orleans might seem like the obvious answer, but a case could also be made for Havana, which positioned on Cuba’s northwest Coast is a Gulf city, not a Caribbean one.
Most of us have not been able to appreciate in our lifetimes the natural link the Gulf provides between New Orleans and Havana as explained by Ned Sublette in his very important book, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square:
“From the earliest days of New Orleans’ commercialism as a port until the imposition of the U.S. embargo of Cuba by President Kennedy, New Orleans’ constant trading partner was Havana, right across the Gulf of Mexico. The 1962 U.S. embargo of Cuba was also in effect an embargo of New Orleans, taking away a chunk of what had long been the city’s core business and damaging the economy of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast.”
Sublette correctly disputes the colorful allusion that New Orleans is really the northernmost Caribbean town, arguing instead that it is a Gulf city with its own unique character.
Nevertheless, the imagery battle with the Caribbean is a difficult one. Cruise ships sailing from New Orleans, most often to Cozumel and the Central American coast, promote their voyage as being the “Western Caribbean.” Yet most of the trip is across the Gulf, with a touch of the Caribbean past the tip of Mexico. For the largest part of the trip, bourbon and sweet tea would be more appropriate drinks than the ever-present rum concoctions.
Quick now: Which Gulf cities have teams that have won a Super bowl? Besides us, the other city is Tampa (There is no city named Tampa Bay), which is Florida’s largest Gulf town. Miami is on the Atlantic.
Quick again: What is the oldest major city within the Caribbean rim? (Hint: it is known for its historic district and its colonial architecture.) New Orleans would be the right reply only if we were talking about the Northern rim but the answer is the beautiful town of Merida, Mexico.
Truth is, the rim of the Gulf coast may be as culturally diverse, if not more so, than the border of the Mediterranean sea: On the Northern Gulf coast, from Brownsville, Texas, to the southern tip of Florida there are many places where different English dialects are spoken; you’ll hear Mexican accents, Cajun patois and Southern drawls. With each dialect comes a distinct cuisine, all involving the Gulf’s bounty but different in their use of seasonings and overall spiciness. There are also variations in what is served where. Grouper is more common on menus along the Florida and Alabama coasts but less so in Louisiana, where redfish, flounder and even pompano are more often served. Boiled crawfish is devoured with a passion along coastal Louisiana and Texas but not so much in the eastern coastal states.
Though the term now runs afoul of political correctness, “Cracker” was once a common word to describe coastal locals living along the Alabama and Florida beaches. “Cracker architecture” still defines the simple wood frame beach house with metal roofs, wooden floors and a wide gallery.
Still ahead are discoveries in Cuba, where the expectations will be high though the path will often be bumpy.
There is much to be explored in the Gulf’s world. May we get there over water that will soon be clear and barrier-free.