Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood

Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood

by Taras Grescoe

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Dividing his sensibilities between Epicureanism and ethics, Taras Grescoe set out on a nine-month, world-wide search for a delicious-and humane-plate of seafood. Along the way, he explains the cultural and commercial implications of fish production on our environment, our health, and our seas. At once entertaining and illuminating, Bottomfeeder is a thoroughly


Dividing his sensibilities between Epicureanism and ethics, Taras Grescoe set out on a nine-month, world-wide search for a delicious-and humane-plate of seafood. Along the way, he explains the cultural and commercial implications of fish production on our environment, our health, and our seas. At once entertaining and illuminating, Bottomfeeder is a thoroughly enjoyable narrative about the worlds cuisines and an examination of the fishing and farming practices we take too easily for granted.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this whirlwind, worldwide tour of fisheries, Grescoe (The Devil's Picnic) whiplashes readers from ecological devastation to edible ecstasy and back again. In disturbing detail, he depicts the "turbid and murky" Chesapeake Bay, where, with overharvested oysters too few to do their filtering job, fish are infested with the "cell from hell," a micro-organism that eats their flesh and exposes their guts. He describes how Indian shrimp farms treated with pesticides, antibiotics and diesel oil are destroying protective mangroves, ecosystems and villages, and portrays the fate of sharks-a collapsing fishery-finned for the Chinese delicacy shark-fin soup: "living sharks have their pectoral and dorsal fins cut from their bodies with heated metal blades.... The sharks are kicked back into the ocean, alive and bleeding; it can take them days to die." But these horrific scenes are interspersed with delectable meals of succulent Portuguese sardines with "fat-jeweled juices" or a luscious breakfast of bluefin tuna sashimi, "cool and moist... halfway between a demi-selBreton butter and an unctuous steak tartare"; the latter is a dish that, due to the fish's endangered status, Grescoe decides he won't enjoy again. The book ends on a cautiously optimistic note: scientists know what steps are needed to save the fisheries and the ocean; we just need the political will to follow through. Grescoe provides a helpful list of which fish to eat: "no, never," "depends, sometimes" and "absolutely, always." (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal

Adult/High School

A thorough investigation of the fishing industry. Grescoe's research carried him to major fishing ports across the globe, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Indian Ocean, where he spent time with and interviewed fishermen, fishmongers, chefs, restaurateurs, and scientists. Each chapter focuses on a different dish-"Shrimp Curry," "Bluefin Tuna Sashimi," "Fish and Chips"-telling the history of the dish as well as the legal, ethical, and health issues surrounding the seafood used to make it. The author then explains his own choices of what to eat and what not to eat. But what really drives the book is his love of cuisine. Whether it's something as ordinary as fish sticks or an exotic meal of jellyfish, he writes about it all with gustatory enthusiasm. The book concludes with a useful appendix listing alternative resources, questions to ask when buying seafood, a list of common fishing terms, and lists of seafood broken into categories so readers have a clearer idea of what is acceptable to eat. While it may not have the widespread appeal of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (Houghton, 2001), Grescoe's entertaining and informative book will arm anyone interested in a dietary change.-Matthew L. Moffett, Pohick Regional Library, Burke, VA

From the Publisher

“Research that brings muckraking books such as Fast Food Nation to mind.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Grescoe takes us on an international tour of controversial cuisines--shark fin soup in China, whale sashimi in Japan, monkfish tail in New York City--meanwhile offering an overview of the corrupt practices that have put the oceans (and our health) in danger.” —Salon

“Grescoe's tale hits all the right notes. It's an entrée you'll remember.” —Fortune Small Business

Bottomfeeder is Grescoe's story…a starting point for reflecting on where each of us draws the line about what's acceptable to eat and what's not.” —Gastronomica

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How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood

By Taras Grescoe
Copyright © 2008

Taras Grescoe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-225-0

Chapter One The Rise of the Goblin

New York City-Pan-Roasted Monkfish

Q: Why are fish so thin? A: Because they eat fish. -Jerry Seinfeld

THE MOST HIDEOUS DENIZEN of the deeps you are ever likely to eat is the monkfish, also known as the goosefish, allmouth, bellyfish, molligut, and frogfish. A cross between a goblin and a tadpole, the monkfish has a broad shovel-shaped head that appears to taper into its tail without bothering to pass through the intermediary of a body. With its beady eyes, warty skin, and scowling froglike mouth filled with needle-sharp teeth, the monkfish resembles the flattened Halloween mask of some Texas chainsaw psycho. Scottish fishermen call it Molly Gowan. In parts of New England it is known as a lawyerfish, which gives you an idea.

The monkfish's physiology is beautifully adapted for ambush. It scuttles along the sea bottom using fleshy, handlike ventral fins. Its tiny eyes look like limpets, its fins could be mistaken for clams, and its skin is mottled to resemble stones and gravel. Marveling at this design, the Eighth Duke of Argyll wrote: "The whole margins of the fish, and the very edge of the lips and jaws, have loose tags and fringes which wave and sway about amid the currents of water so as to look exactly like the smaller algae which move around them." Virtually invisible, the monkfish entices its prey with a modified spine that juts out of its forehead, trailing a little flag of tissue on the end that acts as a lure. When a shrimp or sand eel tries to take the bait, the monkfish springs upward with a flick of its powerful tail while simultaneously opening its mouth, creating a suction that vacuums up its prey. When pickings get slim below, a hungry monkfish will even rise to the surface: fishermen in Massachusetts have hauled up specimens from depths of a thousand feet with half-digested seagulls in their guts.

This Quasimodo of the Atlantic is not only hideous to look at, but as a bottom-dweller, it is also particularly prone to parasites. I have talked to fishmongers who shudder at the memory of uncooked monkfish flesh-especially the liver, which can be virtually ambulant with marine worms-and privately say they would never eat it themselves. The biggest monkfish grow to five feet in length. If you caught one on a line, you would probably happily throw away your rod and reel just to be rid of the thing.

One weeknight evening in late spring, Eric Ripert, the executive chef at Manhattan's, if not America's, most famous seafood restaurant, has prepared his monkfish tail pan-roasted, in a fanciful tribute to Antonio Gaudí, the eccentric Catalan architect. The sauce is an emulsion of chorizo and white albariño grapes, spiked with spicy sausage that gives the tiniest bite to the quite rubbery, slightly sweet squares of flesh, which are served with crispy patatas bravas drizzled in alternating white and red bands of mayonnaise and paprika sauce. At Le Bernardin the ocean's finest fruits are slowly braised, barely cooked, thinly pounded, soothingly presented, and easily digested.

Gaudí, a reclusive vegetarian who deplored excess, would have felt out of place here: Le Bernardin is at the top of all kinds of food chains. Ever since the first Michelin guide to New York consecrated Le Bernardin with three stars, its top rating, a table has to be booked weeks, if not months, in advance. In this blue silk and teak temple of seafood, a block away from Rockefeller Center, the money is old, the atmosphere reverential.

"This is the best restaurant in New York, you know," a snowy-haired alpha male in a gold-buttoned blazer proclaims to his guests (before inviting them to come elk-shooting at his estate). Anticipating the entrance of a matron in head-to-toe Chanel, a hostess gives the revolving door a nudge. Self-effacing young men in black shirts and black ties wage war on tablecloth crumbs with metal scrapers, materializing at one's elbow like stagehands in a kabuki drama. With the wine pairing and Ripert's signature dessert-a whole brown egg, hollowed out and filled with milk chocolate, caramel foam, and maple syrup-the bill for the tasting menu is $295. For your money, you get some of the world's great delicacies: quail eggs and osetra caviar imported from Iran, foie gras, and wild salmon flown in from Alaska.

For a bottom-feeding monkfish from the shores of Maine, it is all pretty heady company. A decent-sized monkfish used to earn fishermen thirty cents a pound. If, that is, they bothered to land them at all; trawler captains tended to throw them back as unsalable trash fish. But thirty years ago the monkfish experienced an apotheosis: the finger of culinary fashion descended, and this repulsive sea creature was elevated from mere bycatch to ubiquitous entrée, its price increasing tenfold in the process.

Fish à la Mode

"There is a new fish just beginning to appear in the markets around where I live," wrote Julia Child in the May 1979 issue of McCall's magazine. She had first seen it at a fishmonger's in New England. "That is to say, it's not a new fish at all, but one that's been nosing about in Atlantic waters from New Foundland [sic] to North Carolina ever since fish began. However, we had not paid it any mind until the price of our usual fish became so astronomical that our fishery people began looking more carefully at their catch ... Monkfish is what I saw the other day at my fish market-as soon as word gets around there will be demands for it, and it will be shipped all over the country."

Child herself made sure of that. The cookbook author who introduced French cuisine to the American mainstream memorably wrestled with a twenty-five-pound monkfish on Julia Child and Company, showing a national PBS audience how to decapitate the monster and poach its tail. George Berkowitz, founder of the Legal Sea Foods chain, would later marvel, "By mentioning monkfish on her show, she introduced it to America ... she could take an underused item and after one show, monkfish takes off and it's still popular twenty years later."

Culinary trends can be deadly for fish, driving obscure species that happen to become fashionable to collapse. Particularly in North America, a market of 334 million curious consumers. In the 1980s New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, one of the instigators of the Cajun trend, put blackened redfish-a species more commonly known as red drum-on everybody's lips: by 1986, fishermen were taking 14.5 million pounds a year from the Gulf of Mexico to keep up with demand. Eighteen years later the catch was down to a mere 73,000 pounds, and wholesalers had taken to importing farmed drum from Taiwan and Ecuador.

Pity the fish that catches the wrong eye at the wrong time. If its flesh happens to be tasty enough, its fate is sealed, and ships with the latest satellite technology will chase it to Antarctic seas and oceanic abysses to keep plates in London, Tokyo, and New York filled. Analyzing the decline of predator fish in the Atlantic, ecologists Boris Worm and the late Ransom Myers concluded in a paper published in Nature in 2003 that it took only fifteen years for an industrialized fishery to reduce the biomass (the combined weight of all the organisms) of a targeted species by 80 percent.

In 1978, Massachusetts's fishermen were getting thirty-five cents a pound for monkfish. Three years later, thanks to Child's advocacy, the price had almost doubled, and an obscure bottom-feeder was on its way to being declared overfished.

For the monkfish, things have never been the same.

The Goblin at the Market

These days, a trip to the New Fulton Fish Market is a sobering experience. It used to be a drunken one: in the nineteenth century, slumming citizens would stop for soft-boiled eggs and a dozen bluepoints at its many oyster stands. Late into the twentieth century, it was a place where guys with Runyonesque names like Johnny Dirtyface could disinfect a knife wound with half a bottle of whiskey, drink the rest, and still set a record for filleting shad.

At four o'clock in the morning, the South Bronx is a lonely place. I walked through the New Fulton Fish Market's security gate, where drivers must now pay six dollars just to enter the floodlit parking lot, and entered the market by a side door. Inside, the building was a horizontal bunker the size of an upended Empire State Building lit with all the charm of a bus station. I had come looking for trouble: a face-to-face encounter with a freshly caught monkfish.

I have a theory about the great fish markets of the world. When a metropolis loses its central market, it also loses its belly, and with it, its soul. (Though, in New York's case, perhaps id is the apposite term.) Paris, I knew, had given up its lumpen-âme in 1969 when the city center food market Les Halles, that haven for the inebriated in search of a late-night onion soup, moved to suburban Rungis. The relocation of the Fulton Fish Market to Hunts Point in the Bronx in 2005 was the culmination of years of gentrification and confirmed something old-time New Yorkers have long known: whatever is left of the class-mixed, gritty Manhattan of legend moved to the boroughs a long time ago.

On either side of the New Fulton's central corridor, there were signs over crates and sinks every dozen yards or so announcing the leading purveyors to New York's restaurateurs: Slavin, Blue Ribbon, Gloucester Fish Company, Smitty's Fillet House. Fulton's new location has not stopped the chefs and retailers from coming, and for the thirty-seven wholesalers who survived the move, business has apparently improved. In 2006, the market sold 250 million pounds of fish, putting it second only to Tokyo's Tsukiji in terms of volume.

An employee at Frank W. Wilkisson, Inc., seemed happy to take a break from unloading boxes of fish from a hi-lo, one of the miniforklifts that crisscross the market floor. Casually dangling a steel gaffing hook from the shoulder of his white smock, Nick Dantuono talked of all the changes he had seen in his thirty-three years at the market.

"Cod used to be really big, like so," said Dantuono, extending the palm of his right hand a foot past the tail of a slimy specimen sitting on a bed of ice. "We'd get the market cod-the smaller cod with its head still on-and steak cod, which came with the head already off. We used to see a lot more Atlantic pollock and haddock, too, but suddenly that stuff dropped off. Ali the cod gets snapped up by the processors to make fish fingers now; it never even gets here.

"With air freight, the whole world opened up to us about ten years ago. Now they can catch swordfish in Australia, bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean-any place on earth, really-and they'll put it in a Styrofoam box and within twenty-four hours, bang, it's here." He explained that his company was now making most of its money from a fish called whiting. For every red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico, he said, they sold a hundred pounds of whiting from Nova Scotia. A foot-long Atlantic forage fish with bland, pale flesh, whiting was actually the market's most popular fish. Dantuono figured they sold fifty tonnes a week, mostly to fry shops in African-American neighborhoods.

Looking around, Dantuono said he had to admit the new market was a lot cleaner than the old. There were stainless steel tables everywhere, floor drains and sinks, and you no longer had to wear a hat to keep the pigeon shit off your head. Most important, the Styrofoam boxes no longer sat under FDR Drive for hours in one-hundred-degree heat. The entire building was chilled to a fish-friendly forty degrees.

"The thing is, there's no atmosphere here," said Dantuono. "In Manhattan you had the pier, you were on the street, you felt like you were part of the city. Here it's more like being in a box. You don't get the people coming off the street. It was nice. We liked that."

Inspecting the wares of other vendors, I saw that exotic fish, once a rarity, were now a market staple. In fact, parts of Fulton looked like a casting call for Finding Nemo. I recognized parrotfish from Antigua and a berry-eating fish called the tambaqui from South America; there were butterfish, grouper, sea robins, and an iridescent and exophthalmic deep-sea species called orange roughy. It was a sign of the times. Rather than North Atlantic staples like cod, haddock, and tuna, New Yorkers were now eating aquarium fish, taken from distant, already-picked-over seamounts and coral reefs.

I continued my quest for the hobgoblin of the deep. It was not difficult to find: every dealer seemed to sell monkfish, from Montauk Seafood (which displayed them pre-decapitated) to South Street Seafood (where they were sold already filleted). The tails went for $3.25 a pound-meaning the retail markup is severe: Manhattan restaurants charge as much as $25 for a six-ounce serving. When an employee at Blue Ribbon Fish, supplier to some of the city's finest restaurants, noticed me eyeing his wares, he asked: "Can I show you a real interesting fish?"

Plunging his gaffing hook into a Styrofoam box, he pulled up a kind of drooping, slimy jabberwock with a bulldog's grin. The monkfish, it seemed, had found me: I was looking at a perfect twenty-five-pound specimen, landed in Cape May, New Jersey, the day before. It was even more hideous than I had thought it would be, its brown skin glistening toadlike in the fluorescent light.

"It hides in the sand," the Blue Ribbon man explained, "and uses this little pole to fish." He tugged at the filament projecting out of the monkfish's forehead. "This little black membrane kinda looks like a worm to any fish passing by. He just wiggles it around like that, and then-whooooa!" With a yank on the gaff hooked beneath the monkfish's upper jaw, he made the monkfish leap upward. Right toward my nose. Twin lines of pointed teeth loomed as a maw the size of a dinner plate opened. When I involuntarily leaped back, the vendor laughed. "Gets 'em every time!" he roared, as his buddies chuckled. (Fishmonger humor, I would learn, is an acquired taste.)

Maybe I had gotten off easy with a monkfish to the face. People who got out of line in the old Fulton, after all, used to end up swimming with the fishes. In its South Street location the market had been a notorious haven for organized crime, and syndicates skimmed huge sums from the tills of fish dealers over the years. The Genovese family was accused of using bogus unloading and security companies to turn Fulton into a private laundromat for ill-gotten cash.

It all meant you had to be careful what you bought in Fulton. One dealer was arrested for selling wild striped bass from the lower Hudson River, illegal because it is so full of pollutants. It turned out he had been peddling his stock to other Fulton wholesalers; eventually thousands of pounds of fish tainted with polychlorinated biphenyls, highly toxic industrial chemicals, made it to the plates of some of Manhattan's finest restaurants. In 1995 then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani started an aggressive campaign of licensing and background checks. Any fish dealer who had the slightest criminal record was fired. Within a few months thirty companies were ejected. The cleanup turned out to be a good thing for the city's fish lovers: prices fell, and trading volumes at Fulton jumped by 50 percent.

Not that seafood fraud has stopped altogether. Far from it. There is a good reason that monkfish is called the "poor man's lobster."

Bait and Switch

Seafood fraud is not that hard to pull off: when it comes to passing off one species for another, fish dealers have proven all too willing to take advantage of the fish-eating public's lack of taxonomic rigor.

Take the words sea bass. They appear in the names of one hundred different species, only a few of them related to one another, from chain-gang sea bass to Chilean sea bass to striped sea bass. Meanwhile, in Italy, a single species of fish, the common gray mullet, is known as cefalo, muletto, muzao, and thirty-seven other names. (Nothing would kill sales of over-fished species faster than forcing restaurants to use their real names. The orange roughy, for example, is known in New Zealand as slimehead. Mahi-mahi was originally called dolphinfish-and nobody wants to be accused of eating a dolphin. And in England, fish and chips shops should certainly be forced to sell rock salmon by its real name: spiny dogfish.) Unlike beef, pork, and chicken, fish is a generic term for a wide range of animals: all told, 350 species of seafood can be found in markets in the United States. It is not difficult to pass off one species as another, and even easier to label farmed fish wild-caught. Depending on where you live, if you eat seafood in restaurants a couple of times a week, you will almost certainly be the victim of fraud at least once, and maybe twice, a month.


Excerpted from Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe Copyright © 2008 by Taras Grescoe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Taras Grescoe is the author of two books, one of which, Sacre Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec, was shortlisted for the Writers Trust Award and was a national bestseller in Canada. His work appears in major publications all over the US, the UK and Canada, including The Times, National Geographic, Independent, Condé Nast Traveller (U.K.), National Geographic Traveler and the New York Times.. He lives in Montreal.
Taras Grescoe is the author of two books, one of which, Sacre Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec, was shortlisted for the Writers Trust Award and was a national bestseller in Canada. His work appears in major publications all over the US, the UK and Canada, including The Times, National Geographic, Independent, Condé Nast Traveller (U.K.), National Geographic Traveler and the New York Times.. He lives in Montreal.

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