Vanishing Foodways

Louisiana and Vietnam: two regions on opposite sides of the world that share much in common. Both regions were formed over the past 6,000 years by mighty rivers: the Mississippi in Louisiana and the Mekong in Vietnam–the fourth and tenth largest rivers in the world, respectively. The “boot” of Louisiana was created by the Mississippi River, the largest river basin in North America, draining nearly 50% of the continent. Silt and sediment from the Rocky Mountains and Central Plains, carried by the great river, were once and trapped and deposited by 300 foot cypress trees, 150 foot bamboo canes and other native plants to create the Mississippi Delta region. Fresh water fed the plant growth that created North America’s largest wetlands. 

Similarly, the Mekong Delta was created by the mighty Mekong River carrying silt and sediment from the Himalayas, collected by mangroves that helped build up the river delta’s wetlands. The two muddy river deltas, where freshwater meets tidal saltwater, create vital, fragile and biodiverse ecosystems that are home to two of the world’s largest fisheries and migratory flyways. These regions of incredible abundance have also given rise to world-renowned cultural foodways, traditions and cuisines.

Additionally, the abundance of food produced in these regions makes a significant contribution to the food supply of the entire world. The Mekong Delta is the world’s second largest producer of rice while the Louisiana coast and wetlands produce approximately 70% of all shellfish consumed in North America. Both regions are renowned for their spicy cuisines that are quite similar in many ways, especially their unique soup and sandwiches. Louisiana is known for gumbo and po’boys, while Vietnam is known for pho and banh mi. Interestingly, the sandwiches of both regions incorporate French bread, as both were once French territories. 

In many ways, these similarities are best recognized by Vietnamese-Louisianans. Southeast Louisiana is home to over 15,000 Vietnamese, most of whom are descendants of the 2,100 refugees that came to Louisiana after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Many of the initial war refugees, several of whom made the transoceanic trek in fishing boats, settled in wetland areas east of New Orleans and found the climate and region to be quite similar to Vietnam. They quickly adapted and began fishing, farming and foraging just as they did in their homeland.

Louisiana and Vietnam are both drastically impacted by industrialized aquaculture in the Mekong Delta and along the Vietnam Coast. Industrialized aquaculture is the major cause of Vietnam losing approximately 50% of its mangrove forests in the past 40 years. Thus, industrialized aquaculture is destroying both the land and the natural wetland habitat for wild seafood.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, cheap Asian shrimp imports enter the US unregulated, due to trade agreements, causing dockside prices in Louisiana to drastically drop from $4.50 per pound to as low as $1.50 per pound–a price that has forced many Louisiana shrimpers out of business. To make matters worse, imported farm-raised shrimp often enters the U.S. market diseased and contaminated due to a combination of factors that include contaminated industrial aquaculture facilities, lack of sufficient inspection of seafood imports in the U.S. and trade agreements that now supersede domestic health, safety and labeling laws and regulations.

When food is treated as a commodity for trade, the result is that the fishers and farmers that produce the food get paid less, consumers pay more for lower quality food while commodity traders make sizable profits from an unsustainable and energy-intensive system. When  the unsustainable global food industry fails and the vital lands and hardworking people that fish and farm to feed the world erode and vanish, where will the world get its food?

Vanishing Foodways was launched at Terra Madre 2016 by the Louisiana-Vietnam delegation, sponsored by Slow Food New Orleans. The cross-cultural delegation hosted two pop-ups in Torino to share the food, cultures and stories of these two amazing regions created by two giant river basins. I plan to travel to Slow Fish 2017 in Genoa to present Vanishing Foodways and collect stories from other river basins, and then to Vietnam to collect stories and sample food along the Mekong River basin.

Vanishing Foodways will participate in a variety of events and panels at Slow Food Nations, aiming to bolster understanding of how river basins connect the land and oceans in create a dynamic global ecosystem. Be on the lookout for updates as the Vanishing Foodways narrative grows.


Meet Gary and learn about the Vanishing Foodways project at the free panel discussion:
Vanishing Foodways: The Louisiana-Vietnam Story, July 15 at 9 a.m.