March 23, 2011
There’s a hilarious skit in the IFC show Portlandia that pokes fun at the current preoccupation in certain circles with knowing exactly where one’s food comes from. A couple (played by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) give their waitress the third degree about not only the diet and living conditions of Colin, the chicken they are considering ordering, but its social life on the farm and the sincerity of the farmer’s motives.
It’s been especially difficult for concerned eaters to get this kind of dossier on their wild-caught seafood. (Imagine: “He enjoyed exploring shipwrecks and the sound of migrating whales. He was on a squid and crustacean diet.”) Short of meeting the fishing boats as they return with their catch, you’re unlikely to know much about who was responsible for bringing your fish to the table. But a step in that direction was recently taken.
In September 2010, Maine-based Hannaford Supermarkets started selling fresh swordfish caught by Linda Greenlaw, captain of the Hannah Boden, and her crew. Greenlaw was featured in Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book The Perfect Storm (and portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the 2000 film adaptation). She has also written her own bestsellers and appears in the Discovery Channel show Swords: Life on the Line. She might be the most famous American commercial fisherman since Slade Gorton, whose Gloucester, Massachusetts, cod business evolved into the iconic frozen fish stick brand.
I first heard about the Greenlaw-branded fish in a slightly outdated copy of Down East, a regional Maine magazine, that had been passed around my office, so the North Atlantic swordfish season—which runs from roughly September to November—is already over. But the product was reportedly so popular that I imagine it will be back this year.
The fish wasn’t packaged, but a sign by the fish display at the supermarket chain’s 176 outlets advertised, “A fresh catch from Linda Greenlaw, captain of the Hannah Boden.” According to an article in the Portland Press Herald, the chain sold its first 34,000 pounds in just a week, far more quickly than usual. Browne Trading Company also sold and distributed the Hannah Boden fish to restaurants, including Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Beverly Hills. Celebrity chef meets celebrity sea captain.
Wait, I can sense you thinking, aren’t we supposed to avoid swordfish because it’s overfished? Apparently not anymore, at least in the North Atlantic. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch currently lists domestic swordfish as a “Best Choice,” although imported swordfish is still a no-no. A campaign to educate the public about the depleted swordfish stocks in the late 1990s was so successful, it seems, that the fisheries have had a chance to fully recover. Part of the point of the Hannaford effort was to get the word out about their rebound.
Of course, mercury is still an issue with swordfish, so it’s not advisable to eat a lot of it—young children and women who are nursing, pregnant, or may someday become pregnant should avoid it altogether because of the danger to developing nervous systems. And if people go crazy eating swordfish again, we’ll be back where we started.
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