Saturday, May 07, 2011

Chicken of the Sea

I've been meaning to write for several days about Elisabeth Rosenthal's fine evisceration of tilapia in the Times.

To summarize, this African native is a fish that farms readily and tastes like nothing, making it perfect for the American palate. It's less healthy than almost any marketable fish. Although these are vegetarian fish (as opposed to farming salmon which necessitates the harvesting of smaller fish as fish food), these farms have widespread ecological problems.

Tilapia arrived in American markets almost overnight. Rosenthal visited Lake Yojoa in Honduras. To put it in context, in 2002 I traveled to Honduras where the person with whom I was in then in a relationship had gone on a school-related trip. She visited this very Taiwanese-run tilapia farm. I had never even heard of the fish before. Less than 10 years later, it's one of America's most consumed fish.

I'm going to leave behind the issues of how these factory fish farms pollute lakes with feces and destroy ecosystems to make two other points.

1. I am routinely amazed by Americans' desire for tasteless protein. I've never actually eaten tilapia so I can only speak to what others have said--it is bland. Like people who order well-done steaks or the boneless, skinless, white-meat chicken breast craze, tilapia represents some of the worst in American cuisine. While I suppose one can turn a chicken breast or tilapia into something tasty through the application of sauces, it's not like most people eating this stuff do that. They might add some ketchup. Moreover, why would you want to eat a meat that doesn't taste like anything. Of course, this is not much different from rice or pasta, but those are essentially nutritious grains that provide the base for regional cuisines that do amazing things. And some of the ways various cultures have made fried chicken their own suggests that you can apply the same principles to often tasteless meat (and I realize that chicken doesn't have to be tasteless and can often be good, but in the reality of most people's diets, it is bland and not tasty).

I just can't understand the desire to eat food that is a) bland without reason, b) cloyingly sweet, or c) artificial tasting. Yet Americans do that all the time. And the fact that we breed and kill animals with this very goal in mind is unconscionable. I am no longer really a vegetarian, though I don't eat meat at home. But there's some defense to eating an animal if you treat it with respect. Part of that respect is to care about how you cook and eat it. If you are going to treat tilapia or chicken like Cheetos, why eat it at all?

2. There simply is no excuse for eating fish in 2011 except (perhaps) in very small amounts. I don't want to sound all Cassandra-like here, but wild fish are going extinct in large numbers and farmed fish decimate ecosystems and cause other fish to go extinct. We treat the sea as a farm. Like other meat, we often don't see it as an animal, but something in a nice package at the store (see the disturbed feeling many have with fish served with the head on as an example). It's even worse with the sea though because we literally can't see the animals.

Our children are basically not going to eat most of the fish we eat today. Tilapia will probably be available--there's too much going for it, including an insatiable American appetite for that tasteless protein and the fact that corporations and poor governments are almost always going to choose to decimate that lake ecosystem over giving up on investments. Catfish and other common fish will be around as well.

But most wild fish will be gone, as likely will farmed salmon. What fish-based cultures are going to do is quite worrisome. Meanwhile, we eat away, not knowing or caring. The conditions of factory beef, pork, and poultry farms are very bad, it's true. But these area manageable in the long-term because they are common species. Fish are becoming less common by the day. It's the last wild meat we harvest commercially. The equivalent is not beef or pork, it's bison or passenger pigeon. Our descendants will see our consumption of fish like we see our ancestors destroying passenger pigeon flocks.

Regina Schrambling has more at Epicurious.

Update: A friend sent me this about the scientific debate over just how depleted fish stocks are. Even if the most optimistic (least pessimistic?) models are true, it's still looking bad in the long haul.