We are what we eat, we are told. But we Americans do not eat what we truly are. We are an ocean nation, a country that controls more sea than land and more fishing grounds than any other nation on earth. And yet we have systematically reengineered our landscapes , our economy, and our society away from the sea’s influence. As of 2012, Americans ate a little less than 15 pounds of seafood per person per year, well below half the global per capita average and miniscule in comparison with the 202 pounds of red meat and poultry we consume. [Page 233]
Paul Greenberg is familiar to readers of this blog because I was a big fan of his prior book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. The author is back with a take on seafood that is closer to home, which is appropriate given the rapid rise in local food movements across the United States.
American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood is about the relative dearth of seafood eaten by American diners that is sourced from American waters. Through the lens of three types of seafood—oysters, shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaskan salmon—Greenberg illustrates the odd market forces at work with respect to American sourced seafood.
Nothing illustrates his point better than the juxtaposition of Alaskan salmon and imported tilapia:
It was then and there that it hit me—the bizarre devil’s bargain that Americans have entered into with their seafood supply. Americans now harvest our best , most nutritious fish in our best-managed Alaskan fisheries and send those fish over to Asia. In exchange, we are importing fish farmed in Asia, with little of the brain-building compounds fish eaters are seeking when they eat fish. [Page 190]
Yes, we basically trade Alaskan salmon for fish that is barely fish. Tilapia is fish with training wheels. It is fish for people who find the flavor of cod, haddock, or Pollock not quite bland enough. My father, who slurped oysters with the best of them, referred to it as “Chinese junk fish” because it offered none of the benefits of fish while serving up a host of economic and environmental concerns.
We, as a whole, do not really consider the bounty of the sea. Cattle and the steaks that are cut from their carcasses are the apex foodstuff that comes from American land followed closely by the legions of swine and chickens processed into McRibs and nuggets of various odd shapes:
We need to understand that the marshes of Louisiana are not just an idyll to observe egrets and alligators; they are a food system, one that provides a large portion of the catch in the continental United States. If we choose to , we can support the environment that is home to shrimp, redfish, bluefish, blue crabs, oysters, flounder, sea trout, and others. Yes, there is a small risk of contamination from eating wild seafood from the Gulf. But that risk, when compared to all the other food risks we take as a nation, is infinitesimal. [Page 155]
It’s about consumer behavior and realizing the bounty that is present on our shores. If we could just get out of the whole bland white shrimp, slightly pink salmon, and piles of tilapia complex their could be a huge outpouring of economic support for American seafood. The challenge lies in getting people to accept something that is outside of their comfort zone. Ironically, this has been done already with more familiar land based foods. A few years ago odd cuts of beef like flank or skirt were sold for a fraction of the price of more mainstream cuts, but now those flavorful cuts command a premium. Heritage breeds of pork and poultry populate our palates in increasing numbers every year. Why can’t we do the same with food that swims?
But the future of the American catch depends not only on American governance , but also on the behavior of American consumers. There is no more intimate relationship we can have with our environment than to eat from it. [Page 16]
Take a weekend, read Greenberg’s American Catch, and think about the next type of seafood that you order at a restaurant or buy at the supermarket. Make it Alaskan salmon or Gulf shrimp or an odd filet that the fishmonger at the co-op is all excited about that week. America depends on it.