Why the foodie press needs to do better work on seafood
I recently finished Taras Grescoe’s wonderful, vitally important book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood. Everyone who loves seafood and would prefer to be able to enjoy it in 20 years must read it.
Basic message: overfishing, pollution, climate change, and abusive aquaculture practices threaten to turn the oceans into vast pools of jellyfish, seaweed, slime and little else, within our lifetimes — unless we change things fast.
And changing things fast means being hyper-conscious about what seafood we eat. For Grescoe, that means focusing mainly on so-called “trash” fish — utterly delicious, low-on-the-food-chain stuff like anchovies and sardines. These magnificent creatures now get harvested en masse, to be ground into meal and oil to feed the ravenous maw of the aquaculture industry and its flavorless “salmon,” “shrimp,” etc.
Other good choices are farmed oysters and stuff that you know comes from artisanal fishermen. It turns out that small-scale fishermen who supply their nearby communities tend to be much better stewards of the seas than the vast industrial fleets that dominate fisheries.
Of course, relying on individual consumer choice to save the globe’s fisheries is likely futile. The problems are so dire and immediate that we need concerted, global governmental intervention, as Grescoe makes clear in his conclusion.
Until that happens, there’s an urgent need to educate the public about the dismal state of the oceans. The effort starts with food journalists — people who have a direct impact on the public imagination about fish.
It seems to me that food journalists have generally failed at this task. I see examples all the time of foodie articles blithely extolling the culinary virtues of this or that fish species, without considering the impact of consuming them.
In an extremely evocative piece in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, NYT culture editor (and former food-section editor) Sam Sifton goes in search of the perfect homemade fish taco. The piece certainly isn’t the most egregious example of ocean-blithe foodiness I’ve ever seen. But given Sifton’s position, he should do better — so I’ll take him to task.
Sifton lays out the platonic ideal of a fish taco. He writes:
Fried in strips and served onboard warm corn tortillas with a simple salsa, a pinch of fresh cabbage, plenty of lime and a cream sauce you might want to punch up with some chopped chipotle, these fish tacos can turn a cold March night into bluebird summer, transporting you from spring chill into deep humidity and bliss.
I, too, adore fish tacos; my first reaction to that sentence was stomach growls, not outrage. But if we want to be able to enjoy fish tacos much longer, we have to carefully think through what fish to use.
Sifton doesn’t. For his fish-taco technique, he turns to David Pasternack, chef/co-owner of the celebrated Manhattan seafood temple Esca. In Bottomfeeder, Grescoe profiles Pasternack; he finds him fanatical about quality in sourcing seafood (he catches some of what he serves himself), but a little blase about the fate of the oceans beyond his gourmet bubble.
Gresco praises Pasternack’s mastery of seafood that can still be eaten sustainably — “house-marinated sardines and anchovies, local squid, and ‘steamers,’ clams from Long Island.”
However, he goes on, “Pasternack seemed to have no qualms abut serving some of the most overfished species in the Atlantic.” Gresco calculated that Pasternack’s menu represented fully one-third of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “avoid” list.
None of this troubles Sifton’s ode to the fish taco. He asks Pasternack to name the ideal fish species for making tacos. The chef’s answer: Atlantic cod and flounder — both of which have landed on the Monterey Bay “avoid” list because of overfishing.
Now, the article does add an important caveat: sourcing matters. Sifton writes:
What kind of fish in particular? For tacos, something fresh and white and firm. Emphasis on the fresh. Out in the cold waters off Montauk [the tip of Long Island], the cod bite is on and the flatties are coming soon: big doormat flounder caught on hooks and line. Montauk snowshoes, they call these monsters, and if you see them in the market, it’s time to make tacos. That’s Pasternack Rule No. 2: Buying the fish is half the battle.
It’s true that it matters whom you buy from. Small-scale, artisinal fishermen have proven to be much better stewards than their industrial counterparts. If everyone fished like the folks from whom Pasternack gets most of his product, we probably wouldn’t need “avoid” lists.
But Pasternack — and by extension Sifton — mentions sourcing purely in quality terms. The article does not mention that the life or death of the globe’s fisheries ultimately hangs on those decisions. I can imagine that many foodies — especially ones who don’t live near high-quality fishmongers — will read Sifton’s article and run out in search of cod and flounder at the supermarket for the perfect fish taco.
Regarding Pasternack’s acclaimed cookbook The Young Man and the Sea, Taras Grescoe writes:
Beautifully illustrated … it is an interesting volume — one you can imagine as an artifact in some future museum display explaining what happened to the world’s wildlife.
The same, I’m afraid, can be said about the sort of food journalism practiced by Sifton in this piece. The oceans have become too fragile for careless foodie-ism.