NEW ORLEANS - As the thick oil from the BP spill bubbles through the Gulf of Mexico, threatening sea life and wetlands, foodies are taking up knife, fork and wine glass to defend the equally vulnerable reputation of the coast's seafood industry.
The New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, an annual celebration of the city's love of all things tasty, is pairing wines from around the world with the cooking of some of the city's best chefs to help deliver the message:
Louisiana seafood is still safe, available and delicious.
"What's at stake is a whole way of life," said John Besh, a cookbook author and one of the city's most celebrated chefs.
"It's one of the richest ecosystems in the world. Anything that lives, swims, eats or breeds in the Gulf of Mexico starts out in the Louisiana wetlands," he said. "We need to protect it, and we need to let the world know it's still available."
The festival, which opened Wednesday, is a bit more tony than the recent Jazz and Heritage Festival or French Quarter Festival - organizers say they expect attendees in the $100,000-plus income bracket. It traditionally provides a tourism boost as New Orleans' begins its slide into summer, when visitors tend to avoid the city's heat and high humidity.
And in the true spirit of New Orleans - where death is celebrated with jazz funerals - attendees will acknowledge the sadness of the spill with a party.
"It's the same thing we found ourselves doing after Hurricane Katrina," said Joyce Godbold, executive director of the festival. "The New Orleans spirit can mourn and celebrate at the same time. We don't lose our appreciation of something just because it's in danger."
To help attract national attention, Besh and Paula Deen, the queen of Southern cooking and Food Network star, are teaming up during the festival to hype local seafood and raise money for the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation.
The pair will put on a cooking demonstration and tasting of "Shrimp and Grits" on Saturday. Then they, and other chefs, will serve up Louisiana seafood at a $300-a-plate dinner at Besh's flagship restaurant, August, that evening, with all proceeds going to the foundation.
"Paula wasn't going to come to the Wine and Food Experience," Besh said. "But I was talking to her and she wanted to help. She and her family understand what our fishermen do, what they go through. They want to help preserve that culture."
In the waters of south Louisiana, about 30 minutes from the festival site, hundreds of shrimp and fishing boats sit dockside, idled by the closure of nearby waters because of the long strings of orange oil that are undulating through the area.
But the situation changes constantly. Officials monitor the water and oil movement, reopening areas as they can in an effort to keep as much of the seafood industry operating as possible. And some areas of state waters, away from the spill, have never been closed.
"We still have a significant amount of water open to fisheries," said Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board. "Those fishermen are bringing in seafood and the product that is on the market is safe. We need people to know that."
Right now, Smith and Besh said, the perception that Louisiana seafood is unavailable or unsafe is hurting the industry more than the spill.
"That's a major concern," Smith said. "We're hearing that some restaurants around the country are putting up signs saying they aren't serving Gulf seafood. They are basing that on a perception that we are shut down or it's not safe. That has to stop."
Seafood reaching the market now is undergoing even more stringent testing - by a number of government and health agencies - Smith said, that it normally does.
Between 75 and 85 percent of Louisiana seafood comes from west of the Mississippi River, where the oil has not penetrated, Smith said.