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Why We Should Fight for Fish on the Dinner Plate

Barton Seaver

November 28, 2017

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Photo: Michael Piazza

It's hard to find a more articulate, dedicated advocate for our nation's seafood than chef and author Barton Seaver. When he's not hard at work promoting the potential of aquaculture, developing recipes, or serving as director of the Sustainable Food and Health Initiative at Harvard, Seaver devotes his time to better understanding the arc of our country's relationship with the sea, a depth of knowledge on display in his newest book, American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery from Sea to Shining Sea. Below, Seaver shares an excerpt from the tome, which explores some of the challenges consumers face when trying to incorporate more fish into their home cooking routine.

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By far the hardest part of cooking seafood is buying good seafood, and this is an aspect that has forever set seafood apart from all other meat choices. When we go to the store, the first question we usually ask about seafood is, “Is it fresh?” Granted, seafood is far more perishable than other meat products, but I’ve never once asked the butcher if the pork was fresh. Beef comes with an inked stamp that authenticates the wholesomeness of the product. We’ve come to trust these land-based foods—we’ve demanded government regulations and enforced standards to ensure the worth of the products being marketed to us. But when it comes to seafood there are few consumer-recognized quality standards. There is no sell-by date. And beyond this it seems that seafood is guilty before proven innocent. We contend the caliber of seafood, and in doing so create an inherently more complicated decision process when it comes to shopping for fish, which has made it all too easy to resort back to our tried and true preferences. As a result, our consumer dollars have never encouraged and empowered the seafood industry to better serve us.

I think this has roots in a cultural bias rather than by any learned suspicion. We have a relatively one-sided relationship with seafood. We read a recipe and when we walk up to the counter, we say, “I need exactly this fish,” because that’s what the recipe calls for. From the moment we think about having seafood for dinner, we begin to engage in a series of behaviors that greatly diminishes the likelihood of success.

We must reverse this order of operations. Rather than getting excited about a recipe, we should get excited about getting the best quality piece of fish we can find. When we ask, “What’s the catch of the day?” we set ourselves up for success. And most importantly we begin to see the oceans and fishery economies as dynamic systems that are inspiring to us as cooks, as foodies, and as neighbors. What if, instead of dictating to our fishmonger what a recipe calls for, we approached the fish counter with curiosity, knowing we might make a great discovery and find a fish that we might never have tried before. Instead of telling the fishmonger what we are willing to eat, we need to allow them to guide us to the fish we should eat.

Beginning in the late 1980s, our preferences for seafood in the United States have remained static, focusing on only a small variety of flavors and textures. Granted there have been some newcomers to our field of favorites, namely tilapia, Basa, and Swai. But it’s generally accurate to say that of the paltry amount of seafood we eat per person in this country (now averaging around 15 pounds a year), more than 90 percent comes from just ten species of fish. Furthermore, shrimp, tuna, and salmon so dominate our preferences that more than 65 percent of our total consumption is from just these three varieties. I’m quite fond of all three of those, but I also think we should live a little more adventurously. Let’s be mindful that we live in a culinary world still defined by an abundance of flavors and textures. In this world, many of us are disconnected from the source of our food, but what we choose to put on our plates can help forge these lost bonds to producers and nature.

Our baseline of what we consider good food fish has changed under the influence of many factors. We often live far removed from the source of our food. We have bought into the idea that convenience is an essential seasoning for dinner. But all fish is delicious when cared for and cooked by simple guidelines. We think we don’t like mackerel because we have simply not had the opportunity to experience liking mackerel. To appreciate anything is a skill. And when it comes to the diversity of seafood that could swim into your culinary conscious, we simply don’t practice liking them. Let me put it another way: if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Beyond just enjoying dinner, each of us as consumers should play an active role in encouraging sustainable resource economies, bringing our burden onto the system as a whole, rather than just pieces of it. Conserving the natural resources of our seas should not be the job solely of fishermen. For example, in New England there are nearly a hundred species of fish and shellfish that have for centuries been brought into the important harbors that line the coast. But of those legion choices for dinner, we have wastefully under-loved all but a few of them. In the face of wild abundance, we have preferred familiarity over experience. We seek satiation rather than sensation. We will always have our favorites, and I think that is a good thing, but to truly appreciate your favorite you need to experience everything you can.

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Purchase a copy of American Seafood to read the full chapter and more.

Barton Seaver is director at the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Center For Health and the Global Environment at Harvard School of Public Health. A lauded author, chef, and public speaker, Seaver has made it his life’s work to improve our relationship to the earth and the ocean. Learn more about his work at bartonseaver.org.

Learn more about JBF's sustainable seafood advocacy through our Impact programs.