Southern Art/Wider World is a digital humanities project that empowers dialogue about the historical and cultural themes present in WAMA’s collection and the Southern land. Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Also supported in part by the Mississippi Humanities Council, and in partnership with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
In this lesson, food writer and journalist Francis Lam helps lead a discussion about the intersections of culture and food, through the lens of Biloxi, Mississippi, "The Seafood Capital of the World."
FRANCIS LAM is the host of “The Splendid Table,” produced by American Public Media. Lam is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter, a division within Penguin Random House that is a leader in cookbook publishing. For two seasons, Lam was a regular judge on Bravo’s hit show, Top Chef Masters. An award-winning writer, Lam has written for numerous publications, including Gourmet, Bon Appetít, Food & Wine, Lucky Peach, Saveur, Salon, Men’s Journal, and the Financial Times. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and holds a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies and Creative Writing from the University of Michigan.
"Before Biloxi was known as a city fighting to recover from a natural disaster, before it was known as a casino playland, Biloxi proudly wore its crown of Seafood Capital of the World, a place of communities built on shrimp nets and oyster drudgers.
– FRANCIS LAM
Walter Inglis Anderson, Map of Biloxi and Ocean Springs, circa 1940s. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.
Setting the stage for the discussion, Francis Lam grounds us in place; a place whose cultural identity stems from its proximity to the bounty of Gulf waters.
TRANSCRIPT: You know, Biloxi has long had this nickname of the Seafood Capital of the World, and what that had meant is that for over a 100 – probably nearly 150 years at this point – fish and seafood processing were such a huge industry there that many different communities came to Biloxi to find work. I believe it started with polish workers from Maryland in the late 1800s, and then Cajuns from Louisiana, and Croatians came; mostly as laborers, fisher people, and eventually established themselves and came to own their boats and came to then own the processing plants and own the industry. And then in the 1980s, Vietnamese fisherman started to come, and now there’s a huge Vietnamese community there. Kind of repeating that cycle. One of the things that was really exciting to me about learning about all of this: when you learn about histories, usually they’re told in these big, broad brushstrokes. But in Biloxi, so many people have lived this history that they can tell you about it from their own eyes.
A COMMON TABLE
"The young red wing was the first to come to board for food. The second to come was a bunny. Then the father red wing, and finally a cake walk of grackles, who were bold until they got to the board, then crouched and snatched a mouth full, leaded into the air, and went off to a quiet place to eat.
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON, from The Horn Island Logs
As with most things, Walter Anderson understood the importance of food from his vantage point in nature. On Horn Island, he prepared meals for his "dinner guests" of wild animals. Food, ever a giver of life, held even more importance on the island. There, the food chain was not a chapter from a biology book, but a drama that played out in real time.
Likewise, from the water, Anderson could look back and see the lights of Biloxi and the seafood factories illuminated at all hours. Raw nature and human industry converged, linked by a shared urge to eat, and to build community across generations. The pelican, like human, survived here by harvesting the sea.
Walter Inglis Anderson, decorator, Peter Anderson, potter, Harvesting the Sea, C. 1940. Ceramic. Collection of the Family of Walter Anderson.
Francis Lam answers the question, what is the power of food?
TRANSCRIPT: I really appreciate this notion that food brings us together. And that’s something that – as a person in food media, as a storyteller in food for many years – has driven a lot of my work and my career. But I want to complicate it a little bit, too, by saying, there’s nothing really automatic about that. What I’ll say is this, the power of food is that it gives us an opportunity to connect with one another. And that also means that we have to put forth the effort. To listen to one another as we speak. And to speak to one another. And we have to put forth the effort to embrace that power. We are all like animals of our senses, and we’re all animals of hunger. And, in a sense, it makes us very vulnerable to share food with one another.
BUILDING A LIFE BY THE SEA
Walter Inglis Anderson, Oyster Shuckers, C. 1945. Pen and Ink. Gift of the Friends of Walter Anderson to the Museum.
In the mid-twentieth century, the population of the Mississippi Gulf Coast – and Biloxi, specifically – boomed, in large part due to the seafood industry. Waves of laborers came from across the country and the world to work as captains, factory workers, or operators. Boat-building, always a coastal tradition, also expanded to support the industry. This growth continued into the 1980s, when Vietnamese families settled here after the fall of Saigon.
Walter Anderson was fascinated with the ways that nature and society interacted, which is likely what drew him to depict the oyster tongers, shuckers, and fisher folk of the region. In his eyes, this modern industrial life-way was connected to earlier indigenous methods of hunting, gathering, and fishing; part of a long continuum of communities innovating and adapting in order to survive within the land- and seascapes.
“When I did get home I built a fire and cooked oysters and rice and a few mussels. These were yellow and not as tender as oysters. “
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON, from The Horn Island Logs
Walter Inglis Anderson, Cast Netting and Oyster Tonging, C. 1934. Oil on Canvas. Ocean Springs Past and Present Mural Panel.
Short film by Zaire Love
Andrew "FoFo" Gilich, Mayor of Biloxi, recounts his own history – and that of his Croatian family – in the seafood industry.
TRANSCRIPT: Food brought us to this country. My parents and my grandparents came over as deckhands, and then captains, and then processors. The immigrants got here about 1923. We’re known as the Seafood Capital of the World. But Croatians sort of dominated that industry. My first job was at my grandfather’s cannery – I was a can-catcher. All of us cousins. I’m eleven or twelve years old. And I was making $1.35 an hour then. The shrimp was put in – and the ladies along the line, they would put the shrimp tablets in and grade the shrimp. And these little squat cans, six-ounce cans, would be topped and they’d have to be taken ... and put in a rack for pressure cooking. And that’s what our job [was] – our cousins, eleven and twelve years old. We were working hard. Processing two or three-hundred barrels of shrimp every day. It’s the story. It’s the story of family and community. Great story. That’s why I’m so proud of it.
Photographs of boat builders and fisher folk, from: photographer Tom Rankin's Working Boat, 1984 project (black and white); and the family archive of Ty Van Nguyen.
THE BAKERY ON OAK STREET
Short film by Zaire Love and Mary Blessey
Food culture in Biloxi was never restricted to the industry or the sea itself. On land, restaurants run by Biloxi's ethnic communities emerged to support the residents and workers. In these cases, the cultural commingling continued. Le Bakery, operated by baker Sue Nguyen, is one of the best examples. Her French pastry training, her Vietnamese heritage, and the region's already unique food traditions all shaped Le Bakery's signature menu. The sandwiches are as authentically Vietnamese banh mi as they are Southern po'boy. And beyond the food itself, her establishment has become a community anchor for all walks of life. It's where first responders and casino workers and non-English speakers all communicate through a shared cultural and culinary vernacular.
Francis Lam recalls a conversation with Sue Nguyen about how Le Bakery's significance was cemented following Hurricane Katrina.
TRANSCRIPT: Obviously there have been distinct waves of immigration over its history. And how that results today in Biloxi being this amazing mix of communities. But let’s be honest, in the real world, mixing communities is not always seamless. Six months after Katrina, Le Bakery was one of four, I believe, food businesses that had opened in all of East Biloxi. And luckily for us, it was one of best sandwich shops I’ve ever bene to. But you also became like the unofficial cafeteria. All the thousands of relief workers that came. The community sort of shifted from calling your place the Vietnamese bakery on Oak Street, to just calling it, the bakery on Oak Street.
Francis Lam leaves us with a final thought about how important local food cultures are to community character.
TRANSCRIPT: If we’re looking at a future where those spaces don’t exist in our communities anymore, or far fewer of those exist in our community, it’s going to hurt us as a society, as a culture. I think it’s incredibly damaging. It’s not just, “man, I’m a foodie, I love food, and man, it’s a bummer that I don’t get to eat that noodle dish again. Oh, man, it’s a bummer I don’t get to eat that stew again.” That’s a whole nexus of stories and connections and empathy building and people learning from one another that is being taken away from our society.
Southern Foodways Alliance, "Biloxi's Ethnic Shrimping Communities" (oral history project)
C Paige Gutierrez, The Cultural Legacy of Biloxi's Seafood Industry (1984)
Aimee Schmidt, "Down Around Biloxi: Culture and Identity in the Biloxi Seafood Industry." Mississippi Folklife, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 1995)