Since the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico we have heard much about the Gulf’s importance as an ecological system. 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 will bring more recognition to the Gulf, and its rim, as a setting for cultural richness.

On the Northern Gulf coast, from Brownsville, Texas to the southern tip of Florida, there are many English dialects spoken at different places with 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’s 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. The term “Redneck Riviera” is often applied to the beaches of those states and has managed to survive in recognition of the Southern character.

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 haven’t 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 illusion that New Orleans is really the northern-most Caribbean town, arguing instead that it is a Gulf City with its unique character.

Nevertheless, the imagery battle with the Caribbean is a difficult one. Cruise ships sailing from New Orleans, most often to Cozumelm Mexico 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? The other city is Tampa, which is Florida’s largest coastal town not on the Atlantic.

Quick again: What is the oldest major city within the Caribbean rim? (Hint: It’s known for its historic district and its colonial architecture.) New Orleans would be true only if we were talking about the Northern rim, but the answer is the beautiful town of Merida, Mexico.

There is much to be discovered in the Gulf’s world. May we get there over water that will soon be clear and nurturing forever.