Having grown up in Arkansas and Texas, and lived in Florida, I didn’t notice the Gulf Coast being that different from anywhere else I’ve lived. But now that I’ve lived in California for several years, the cultural differences are noticeable.
Gulfport/Biloxi is Southern in culture, with a twist of beachiness for fun. You’ll be called ‘baby’ or ‘chere,’ depending on where you are, and if you’re a fanatic for having things done on time, you’ll be vastly uncomfortable. The people here savor life, and that means they often operate on their own time. People treat you like a long, lost relative, even if they’ve just met you.
In my husband’s family, new additions are encourage to “fix a plate” of food, of which there is always more than enough. Ribs, mac and cheese, greens, chicken, crawfish, crab…you’ll never go hungry if you’re invited to a Southerner’s house, and Gulfport/Biloxi is no exception.
I’m not crazy about all Deep South cooking, but with the beach culture thrown in, as well as the leakings of Cajun culture over from Louisiana, this part of the Gulf Coast has its own unique flavor. More on that later on.
Before and After Katrina
Hurricane Katrina changed everything on the Gulf Coast. Before the tragedy, cities like Biloxi and Gulfport attracted a steady stream of tourists to their brown sugar beaches. Attractions like Fun Time USA kept visitors and locals entertained. Restaurants — Cajun, seafood and deep South home cooking — peppered the coast. All that changed in 2005.
Suffice it to say many buildings and businesses that stood for decades are now gone. It’s heartbreaking, really. I remember my first trip to Gulfport and Biloxi, in 1999. My husband (boyfriend at the time) proudly showed off his favorite haunts, where he’d spent many happy childhood memories. There was FunTime USA, the tiny amusement park across from the ocean, and Marine World, where a seagull stole the fish I was trying to feed a sea lion.
Flash forward to post-Katrina. As much as we dreaded doing it, we couldn’t stay away from examining what this monster of a hurricane had done to his old neighborhood and places he used to play. FunTime USA was a graveyard of broken metal animals. A lone clown head rested on its side. The geography of Highway 90 was unrecognizable, as so many landmarks had been picked up by the gales and relocated. The President Casino and Broadwater Resort weren’t next to the cemetery where I expected them to be. The hotel was demolished. The casino? We found it hobbled on the opposite side of the road further down the highway. Our hearts were sick. How would a small beach town with so many historic attractions ever bounce back?
The good news is: the Coast is recovering, and it’s becoming something new entirely. Just like any society faced with devastation, Gulfport and Biloxi stood strong in the face of adversity and rebuilt. Now there are new buildings and businesses, creating ample opportunity for the people who call the Gulf home.