Should You Eat Fish?

Only when it’s cooked like fish, not like steak.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

I’m in the fifth year of my beluga boycott. Since the breakup of the U.S.S.R., it seems, Caspian sturgeon has been harvested to the brink of extinction. So, I avoid imported caviar. (Actually, I avoid it unless I’m at a wedding where there’s one of those icy caviar setups. Then I’ll eat the beluga, just out of respect for the sturgeon.)

But what’s a diner supposed to do about less precious seafood? The growing worldwide taste for seafood has run smack-dab into shrinking populations of wild fish, ham-fisted fishing techniques, international poaching, and environmental degradation. The main alternative to fishing the open ocean, fish farming, is fraught with complications: Vegetarian fish farming in tanks is seen as a great option for the environment, but farming salmon in the ocean creates enormous waste, and the mangy, lice-ridden farmed fish can escape and threaten wild salmon populations.

Eating and cooking fish have become political acts, but even the most bleeding-heart chefs and diners have a hard time sorting out which fish to serve and eat. Over the past five years, chefs have been asked by various environmental organizations to pledge not to serve problematic fish like swordfish, Chilean sea bass (actually Patagonian toothfish), and farmed salmon, as well as Caspian caviar. (It’s even more confusing than the days of the on-again, off-again grape boycotts organized by César Chávez.)

Of course, listening to the average chef talk about fisheries management isn’t pretty—not unlike hearing Sheryl Crow denounce the war on Iraq. In her swordfishing memoir, Linda Greenlaw minced no words about chefs who signed on to the swordfish boycott. “In my opinion, little Chef Fancy Pants should work at perfecting his crème brulee and leave fisheries management to those who know more about swordfish than how to prepare it.”

Greenlaw has a point: Chefs are trained to be epicures, not ethicists. But the food revolution of the past 30 years has made independent chefs into citizen consumers as much as kitchen technicians. It’s in their interest, personal and commercial, to know where and how food has reached their kitchens. If it’s a good story, they’ll put it on the menu: grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, foraged greens. It helps sell food. The same holds true for seafood that’s been harvested “artisanally”: “diver’s scallops” and “hook-and-line-caught cod,” for example. But as with organic food, chefs are often selectively noble: They will stick to the environmentally correct option up to a certain price point.

Listing the provenance of seafood offerings has a certain tiresome virtue, but chefs can be even more effective in the kitchen than in their menu prose. One reason why we are depleting some stocks so rapidly is that we don’t treat fish like fish. For this, blame both chefs and cagey consumers. Americans have long been wary about seafood. Fifty years ago, it was breaded and then frozen to help suspicious eaters forget about its origins.

Today, on the other hand, seafood is too often cooked and served like meat and chicken. Sole and trout, with their modest filets, used to be the standard restaurant fish, but these days, if a piscine can’t yield a vast 6-ounce to 8-ounce serving, forget about it. Seared rare ahi is the steak-lover’s fish—you could eat it with A-1 if you wanted. Chilean sea bass is the real chicken of the sea, with mild flesh that can be loaded up with any number of undignified fruity sauces. I’ve even seen swordfish served with a bony handle, like a veal chop. And don’t get me started on the teriyaki-slicked salmon that’s invading chain restaurant menus.

Fish treated this way has lost touch with its fundamental fishness: It becomes a sort of briny tofu, a lower-fat stand-in for the missing meat. Even salmon farmers admit that their product is popular because it tastes less salmony than wild fish. It’s the slow-growing sea giants—usually the most threatened fish—that are most vulnerable to the demand for massive chunks of mild, meaty fish.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Here is where chefs can make a difference; they can make customers try nearly anything. Ten years ago, no one would have imagined that beef cheeks and lamb tongues would be foxy items on the menus of chic urban bistros. Bony cuts like short ribs and oxtail used to be a bargain, and now their per-serving cost competes with roasts. I’m plugging for a similar revival in delicate, small-filleted fish, bony fish, and oily fish. From an aesthetic viewpoint, expanding a tiresome seafood repertoire is a chance to help Americans get over their seafood squeamishness—a job most cooks I know would relish. What’s more, many of these fish live a rock ’n’ roll life: They grow up fast, mate early, and die young, and thus they tend to be harder to deplete.

Right now I cook at a Basque-Spanish restaurant, and my chef, with great Iberian pride, imports fish I had never before handled: floppy eels, blushing red mullet, tiny cuttlefish that look exactly like space invaders, blue wings with iridescent butterfly fins. I don’t know what the environmental organizations would say about these jet-setting fish, many of which don’t land on their lists, but most customers dig the offbeat selection. They’re willing to eat fish throats, fish livers, and whole fish whose beady little eyes stare up from the plate. Those who can’t be convinced to eat the unusual seafood turn to other parts of the menu. Which I’m sure is fine with the fish.