Seems the fish have been biting lately. At least in my life. In addition to two opportunities to go fishing in the past two weeks (and another trip this weekend), I’ve been working on my company’s sustainable seafood initiative and having good conversations about the topic with the World Wildlife Fund. Oh, and it was shark week! (Did anyone else see that marlin lance the fisherman in the throat?!?!?!) All that, plus “Four Fish” by Paul Greenberg.
“Four Fish” is Michael Pollan-esque non-fiction about four species of fish and about the role they play in our food chain and in our societies. “Four Fish” is also a book that, at its core, is about sustainability. Not only does Greenberg possess substantial knowledge about our oceans and the history of fishing, he intersperses the book with his own personal connection to fish and to the water. There’s a fine line of over-involving oneself in a non-fiction book, and Greenberg is aware of it. His personal observations are appropriate and actually add to the book’s value.
So the four fish: Salmon, Bass, Cod, and Tuna. Greenberg reviews the major sustainability issues facing each. He discusses—without heavy political bent—the advantages and challenges of aquaculture (fish farming) and of how to balance a growing desire for fish as food and shrinking stocks in the oceans. This is not in-your-face activist journalism. Greenberg did not pull an Eric Schlosser and scare readers about eating seafood. Indeed, at one point Greenberg admits to delighting in some rare (and unsustainable) bluefin tuna. I thought this book was honest and I didn’t feel like I was being preached to. Readers genuinely interested in sustainability should read this for a good analysis of the topic.
I liked the chapter on Cod the best. Mostly because it was the chapter that also talked extensively about groups like Greenpeace, the Marine Stewardship Council, various aquarium groups, and their impact on markets. It delves into how tilapia has become a staple in supermarkets and restaurants and how another species, pangasius, is not far behind. It’s the best chapter on why fish farming is crucially important if we want to feed our families seafood. Greenberg describes tasting a real wild cod, and my mouth watered a bit. To hear him tell it, the difference between fast food cod and a real wild cod is the difference between a crappy tomato and a homegrown one.
In addition to the impact this topic has on what we eat each day, underlying this book is Greenberg’s love of fishing. In an overused (but still appreciated) cliché, he works to pass on his interest in fishing to his daughter. It would be fair to say that I didn’t always enjoy fishing. (Don’t I look happy?) But today, I really enjoy it. I don’t get to fish often because of where I live, but I enjoy a semi-annual trip up to Northern Indiana where I can cast a line and I have fond memories of a walleye fishing trip up on Lake Erie. There is fellowship in the conversations that happen on a lake. Fishing buddies root for their partners to catch fish. And teamwork is unhooking a seemingly lost lure. Plus, fishing Brendon-style, usually involves a few beers. “Four Fish” broadened my understanding of the culture of fishing, the importance and history of fish as food, and the implications of today’s fishing practices. For a foodie and an occasional fisherman, it was a great read.
Two post scripts:
One–Greenberg uses the term “microhistory” when describing a book by Mark Kurlansky called “Cod.” I’ve read these kind of books before but never heard the term–they describe a period of time or a history of a culture, usually through one topic. There are bunches of these books on cod, salt, rum, etc. I enjoyed the one about rum–“And a Bottle of Rum.”
Second–Food books are also a phenomeon. Start with “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” It’s really the best.