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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why I'm Tired of Sustainable Seafood Articles Like "The End of Fish and Chips"

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2011 at 9:50 AM


Earlier this week, Fast Company published an interesting -- and alarming, in that now ol' familiar way -- story about changing fish populations in European waters. The gist of the story is that the North Sea is warming much faster than other major bodies of water, and important cold-water species like cod are shrinking fast while populations of warmer-water, faster-growing fish like red mullet and John Dory are growing.

Now, I have no problem with the reporting itself. But the magazine titled the story "The End of Fish and Chips," and threw in a closing line that just flipped the angry switch in my brain: "Fish and chips, get ready to meet your maker."

With all apologies to the reporter who was just looking for a quick frame for his story, really? You think that fish and chips is going to disappear because we won't be able, on a commercial scale, to pull cod out of the waters? Substitute "bluefin tuna" and "sushi" for "cod" and "fish and chips," or "beluga sturgeon/blinis," or a hundred different dishes that humans are currently grieving over because we've fished one critical ingredient to near extinction, and perhaps you can see how bored I'm getting with this "poor us" take on seafood sustainability stories.

Maybe it's because I grew up on hippie Midwestern food and moved to one of the most cosmopolitan dining cities on the planet, but I don't see much reason to miss bluefin, cod, beluga, or shark fin. That's because, when I look at the ingredients available for me to eat, I'm bowled over. When it comes to cooking, we Americans live in the most awesome moment in the history of human civilization.

Talk to anyone over the age of 60 about going to the grocery store, and they can probably count on two hands the number of fresh vegetables and fruits they could choose from at any one time.

My grandmother spent her whole summer canning fruits and vegetables from the farms around her so her kids could eat all throughout the winter. You ever eat canned green beans, night after night? I have. Canned green beans suck -- and canning has only been around for a few hundred years. Monotony and sustenance have been the hallmarks of cooking all around the world since humans began gathering seeds and lighting fires.

Thanks to centuries of Asian, African, and European trading -- not to mention a little event like the Spanish conquest of the Americas -- my farmers' market is stocked with more species and varieties of fruits and vegetables than the ancient Roman emperors could get their hands on. Even when I go visit my parents in Indiana, the variety of produce available in their local Meijer's is so overwhelming it would take me three months to cook dinner with every vegetable in the bins.

These days, my cupboards are stocked with Chinese cloud ear fungus, Syrian peppers, Indian mango pickle, and eight different kind of rice. Provided I had the money to drop, I could walk to the store two blocks away and buy free-range veal, lamb, scallops, duck, tempeh, and 14 different brands of nut butter. Yes, I live in a privileged city in a privileged country, but even cooking on a tight budget, the palette of flavors I have to work with is psychedelic.

So you want me to care that I can't eat fish and chips made with cod?

I think there's much to mourn and get angry about when we talk about humans' effect on the oceans. But not when we're discussing species as food. Instead of talking about the "end of" foods, people who write about sustainable seafood need to focus on "since we can't eat that, let's use this." Because it's still halibut season on the West Coast, and Alaskan black cod is the most succulent fish I know, and even farmed catfish and basa can make for good fish fries if you treat and season them right. And if you want to flavor your mayonnaise with spices grown in Indonesia and India, or make your fries with Peruvian blue potatoes, all you have to do is get to the store.

Just stop whining to me about a fish you're missing. It's almost gone, and we're all to blame. Wipe the snot off your nose and look around at the bounty we have left.

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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