September 11, 2013
In January, a single bluefin tuna was purchased by a wealthy restaurateur in Tokyo for nearly $2 million—something of a publicity stunt yet indicative of just how much the modern sushi industry values this creature. Japanese chefs handle cuts of red bluefin flesh as reverently as Italians might a white truffle, or a French oenophile a bottle of a 1945 Bordeaux. And a single sliver of the fat, buttery belly meat, called toro, or sometimes o-toro, in Japanese, can pull $25 from one’s wallet. The bluefin, truly, is probably the most prized and valuable fish in the world.
But it wasn’t always this way. Several decades ago, the very same fish were essentially worthless worldwide. People caught them for fun along the Atlantic Coast—especially in Nova Scotia, Maine and Massachusetts—and though few ever ate their catch, they didn’t usually let the tuna go, either. During the height of the tuna sport fishing craze in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the big fish were weighed and photographed, then sent to landfills. Others were mashed up into pet food. Perhaps the best of scenarios was when dead bluefin tuna—which usually weighed at least 400 pounds—were dumped back into the sea, where at least their biomass was recycled into the marine food web. But it all amounts to the same point: The mighty bluefin tuna was a trash fish.
The beef-red flesh, many say, is smelly and strong tasting, and, historically, the collective palate of Japan preferred milder species, like the various white-fleshed fishes and shellfish still popular among many sushi chefs. Other tuna species, too—including yellowfin and bigeye—were unpopular in Japan, and only in the 19th century did this begin to change. So says Trevor Corson, author of the 2007 book The Story of Sushi. Corson told Food and Think in an interview that an increase in tuna landings in the 1830s and early 1840s provided Tokyo street vendors with a surplus of cheap tuna. The meat was not a delicacy, by any means. Nor was it even known as a food product. In fact, tuna was commonly called neko-matagi, meaning “fish that even a cat would disdain.” But at least one sidewalk sushi chef tried something new, slicing the raw meat thin, dousing it in soy sauce and serving it as “nigiri sushi.”
The style caught on, though most of the chefs used yellowfin tuna. Occasionally, chefs made use of large bluefins, and one trick they learned to soften the rich flavor of the meat was to age it underground for several days. The way Japanese diners regarded raw, ruddy fish flesh began changing. This marked a turning point in the history of sushi, Corson says—but he points out that the bluefin tuna would remain essentially unwanted for decades more.
In the early 20th century, sport fishing began gaining popularity in the United States and Canada—and few fish were more exciting to hunt than the giant bluefins that migrated about the Atlantic and passed through near-shore waters in New England and southeast Canada. In Wedgeport, Nova Scotia, interest in catching giant bluefins proliferated among wealthy boat fishermen armed with enormous, crane-like rods and reels, and in 1937, local organizers held the first International Tuna Cup Match.
The event became a festive annual gala of wealthy boatmen vying for victory. Naturally, it was also a brutal bloodfest. The 1949 event saw 72 bluefin tuna landed—the highest number ever caught in the 28-year span the derby was held. The fish were giants, averaging 419 pounds. Such exact measurement depended on subduing and killing them, and almost certainly, most were later discarded. Author Paul Greenberg writes in his 2010 book Four Fish, which profiles the bluefin as among the world’s most important seafood species, that just like the Japanese at the time, “Americans considered bluefin too bloody to eat and had no interest in bringing home their catch.”
Many—probably thousands—of enormous bluefins caught last century by sport fishermen were killed, hoisted for photographs, then either thrown out entirely or sold to processors of cat and dog food.
The dramatic turnaround began in the early 1970s. Beef had become popular in Japan, and with a national palate now more appreciative of strong flavors and dark flesh, bluefin tuna became a desired item. It was also about this time that cargo planes delivering electronics from Japan to the United States and returning home empty began taking advantage of the opportunity to buy cheap tuna carcasses near New England fishing docks and sell them back in Japan for thousands of dollars.
“Bluefin tuna is an amazing example of something we have been made to think is an authentic Japanese tradition,” Corson says. “Really, it was a marketing scheme of the Japanese airline industry.”
Corson says that advancements in refrigeration technology at about this time facilitated what was growing quickly into a new and prosperous industry. Now able to freeze and preserve all the tuna they could carry at sea, operators of huge fishing vessels were able to return home with lucrative hauls. By the time sport angler Ken Fraser caught a 13-foot-long Nova Scotia tuna in 1979 that weighed 1,496 pounds, things had changed for the bluefin. People were still killing them—but not wasting them.
Even sport fishermen often purchased commercial licenses, intending to sell what they caught to the Japanese sushi market. Giant bluefin would no longer be sent to pet food factories. The species had become a delicacy. The popularity spread back across the ocean, and soon Americans developed a taste for bluefin meat. By the 1990s, the bluefin tuna was wanted almost desperately worldwide.
The rest of the bluefin story has been told many times, but the worsening scenario mandates a quick recap: The Atlantic species has crashed from rapturous, water-thrashing abundance to scarcity. It has been estimated that a mere 9,000 adults still spawn each year in the Mediterranean. A British scientist named Callum Roberts estimated that for every 50 bluefins swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in 1940 there was just one in 2010. By most accounts, the population is down by more than 80 percent. The Pacific bluefin, smaller and genetically distinct from the Atlantic species, has fared better over the decades, but the relentless sushi industry seems to eventually catch up with all fatty, fast-swimming pelagics. Fishery scientists recently estimated the Pacific stocks to be just 4 percent of their virgin, pre-fishery biomass. Ironically, in the days when the bluefin’s value has never been higher, sport fishermen are increasingly releasingthe tuna they catch.
Corson, once a commercial fisherman himself, no longer eats bluefin.
“It’s not even that good,” he says. “It’s got this distinct, not-so-subtle, tangy iron flavor, and it melts in your mouth. This makes it very easy to like.” Too easy, that is. Corson says that “old-school sushi holdouts who are still loyal to the older version of sushi” share the same opinion. Among these diners and chefs, the melt-in-your-mouth sensation that has proved so marketable and so devastating to the bluefin tuna is considered simplistic and unsophisticated. “They consider [bluefin] toro to be sort of for amateurs,” Corson says. Instead, traditional sushi connoisseurs enjoy the often crunchier, more subtly flavored muscle tissues of animals like squid, clams, various jacks, flounder and, perhaps most of all, sea bream, or Pagrus major.
To help reveal to others the authentic history of sushi and just how gratifying it can be to eat lesser known species rather than the blubbery bluefin tuna, Corson leads regular tasting classes in New York City. “I’m trying in my own little way to show one person at a time how great traditional sushi can be,” he says. Bluefin is not on the menu at these events.
Whether the culinary world will embrace the true traditions of sushi and turn away from bluefin before the species goes commercially extinct is unclear. Corson notes that he has never seen a species go from coveted delicacy to reviled junk fish. “It’s usually a process of expansion,” he says.
Indeed, restaurant owner Kiyoshi Kimura’s purchase of a 488-pound bluefin for $1.76 million at the Tsukiji fish market this January indicates that the bluefin is more valued than ever now. We might drop our jaws at this, thinking it obscenely wasteful. And though it was similarly wasteful to grind countless big tuna, from head to tail to toro, into cat food, it does seem that the bluefin might have been better off had we just gone on regarding it as trash.
May 15, 2013
There are plenty of examples of structures built from recycled materials—even Buddhist temples have been made from them. In Sima Valley, California, an entire village known as Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village was constructed from reused glass. But this is no new concept—back in 1960, executives at the Heineken brewery drew up a plan for a “brick that holds beer,” a rectangular beer bottle that could also be used to build homes.
Gerard Adriaan Heineken acquired the “Haystack” brewery in 1864 in Amsterdam, marking the formal beginning of the eponymous brand that is now one of the most successful international breweries. Since the first beer consignment was delivered to the United States upon the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, it has been a top seller in the United States. The distinctive, bright green of a Heineken beer bottle can be found in more than 70 countries today. The founder’s grandson, Alfred Heineken, began his career with the company in 1942 and was later elected Chairman of the Executive Board at Heineken International. Alfred, better known as “Freddy,”oversaw the design of the classic red-starred label released in 1964. He had a good eye for marketing and design.”Had I not been a beer brewer I would have become an advertising man,” he once said. When Freddy’s beer took off in the international market, he made it a point to visit the plants the company had opened as a part of its globalization strategy.
In 1960, Freddy took a trip to the island of Curacao in the Caribbean Sea and discovered that he could barely walk 15 feet on the beach without stepping on a littered Heineken bottle. He was alarmed by two things: First, the incredible amount of waste that his product was creating due to the region’s lack of infrastructure to collect the bottles for reuse. (Back then, bottles were commonly returned for refilling, lasting about 30 trips back and forth to the breweries). Second, the dearth of proper building materials available to those living in the impoverished communities he visited. So he thought up an idea that might solve both of these problems: A brick that holds beer.
The rectangular, Heineken World Bottle or WOBO, designed with the help of architect John Habraken, would serve as a drinking vessel as well as a brick once the contents were consumed. The long side of the bottle would have interlocking grooved surfaces so that the glass bricks, once laid on their side, could be stacked easily with mortar or cement. A 10-foot-by-10-foot shack would take approximately 1,000 bottles (and a lot of beer consumption) to build. Yu Ren Guang explains in Packaging Prototypes 3: Thinking Green:
“On returning to Holland [from Curacao], Alfred set about conceiving the first ever bottle designed specifically for secondary use as a building component, thereby turning the function of packaging on its head. By this philosophy, Alfred Heineken saw his beer as a useful product to fill a brick with while being shipped overseas. It became more a case of redesigning the brick than the bottle.”
A handful of designers have accepted Alfred’s WOBO as one of the first eco-conscious consumer designs out there. Martin Pawley, for example, writes in Garbage Housing, that the bottle was “the first mass production container ever designed from the outset for secondary use as a building component.”
There were many variations of the original prototype—all of which were ultimately rejected as many components were considered unworkable. For example, a usable beer bottle needs a neck from which to pour the beer and a protruding neck makes it harder to stack the product once the beer’s run out—problematic for brick laying. The finalized design came in two sizes—350 and 500 milimeters (35 and 50 centimeters)—the smaller of which acted as half-bricks to even out rows during construction. In 1963, the company made 50,000 WOBOs for commercial use.
Both designs (one of the wooden prototypes is pictured in Nigel Whiteley’s Design for Society), were ultimately rejected by the Heineken company. The first prototype for example, was described by the Heineken marketing team as too “effeminate” as the bottle lacked ‘approprate’ connotations of masculinity. A puzzling description, Cabinet writes, “considering that the bottle consisted of two bulbous compartments surmounted by a long shaft.”
For the second model, Habraken and Heineken had to thicken the glass because it was meant to be laid horizontally—a costly decision for an already progressive concept. The established cylindrical designs were more cost effective and could be produced faster than the proposed brick design. But what most likely worked against Habraken’s design was that customers simply liked the easy-to-hold, cylindrical bottle.
Though the brick bottles never saw the market, in 1965 a prototype glass house was built near Alfred Heineken’s villa in Noordwijk, outside Amsterdam. Even the plastic shipping pallets intended for the product were reused as sheet roofing. The two buildings still stand at the company’s former brewery-turned-museum, The Heineken Experience.
Where Heineken failed in creating a reusable brick bottle, the company EM1UM succeeded. The bottles, which were easier to manufacture for most automatic bottling machines than Heineken’s design, were made to attach lengthways or sideways by pushing the knobs of one into the depressions of another. EM1UM was mostly successful in Argentina and collected awards for bottle designs including prisms, cubes and cylinders.
In 2008, French design company, Petit Romain, made plans to make its own take on Alfred Heineken’s WOBO design, the Heineken Cube. It’s similar to the original concept in that it’s stackable, packable and altogether better for travel than the usual, clinky, cylindrical bottles. The major difference is that the cube is meant to save space, not to build homes. Like Freddy’s WOBO, the Cube is still in the prototype stage.
Though Freddy’s brick design never took off, it didn’t stop Heineken International from maintaining the lead in the global brew market. By ’68, Heineken merged with its biggest competitor, Amstel. By ’75 Freddy was one of the richest men in Europe.
A fun, slightly-related fact: Alfred Heineken and his chauffeur were kidnapped in 1983 and held at a 10 million dollar ransom in a warehouse for three weeks. Lucky for Freddy, one of the kidnappers gave away their location mistakenly while calling for some Chinese takeout. According to the Guardian, after the incident, Heineken required at least two bodyguards to travel with him at all times.
Alfred played a large role in the company’s expansion, championing a series of successful acquisitions, right up until his death in 2002. While his plans for translucent, green bottle homes never came to fruition commercially, the Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew temple, constructed from a mix of one million bottles from Heineken and the local Chang beer remains proof of the design’s artfulness. For some designers, it seems, there is no such thing as garbage.
December 10, 2012
When Starbucks announced in late November that it was unveiling a new $7-per-grande-cup brew in select stores, reaction was mixed. Seattle Weekly’s food writer, Hanna Raskin wrote about an office taste test, “The consensus was that the coffee’s good, but not appreciably better than Starbucks’ standard drip.” And yet, the Costa Rica Finca Palmilera Geisha has been doing okay. The Los Angeles Times reported that the online stock sold out in 24 hours, at $40 a bag.
While the news might elicit a Liz-Lemon worthy eye-roll or shooting pangs of jealousy depending on the person, it might actually be something we just have to get used to. Published just a few weeks before Starbucks unrolled its cup of liquid gold, a study from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the U.K. and the Environment Coffee Forest Forum in Ethiopia warned that up to 70 percent of the world’s coffee supply could be gone by 2080 due to climate change.
Turns out, the warnings are actually pretty consistent across the board, the World Bank is practically hoarse with all its calls for caution. On November 18, the World Bank released a new study about the effects of climate change over a long period of time, concluding, “The world is barreling down a path to heat up by 4 degrees at the end of the century if the global community fails to act on climate change, triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people.”
New York University associate professor of food studies and economist Carolyn Dimitri says attention to the vulnerability of the world’s food systems is a step in the right direction but not enough. “These are really big and important groups that are talking about this, but how are they going to gain traction given the way our food system has become so industrialized?”
As someone who’s been studying organic food marketing and access since her days at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dimitri says she wasn’t too surprised to hear about the $7 coffee. “Living in Manhattan,” she says, “people would probably pay even more than that for a cup of coffee.” She sees the launch as a way to appeal to a new set of customers who might have seen Starbucks as selling adequate but not speciality coffee, whether it be for taste or for its unique ethical sourcing, which Starbucks is seeking to expand.
Though Starbucks aims to have all of its coffee meet standards for farmer wages and working conditions by 2015, Dimitri says, “My students tend to be a little bit suspicious of the big companies that enter this area,” as when Walmart began carrying organic products. But Dimitri has a hard time criticizing large companies motives if the end result is an improved livelihood for farmers. Ethical sourcing practices, as defined by Conservation International, include provisions for environmental sustainability as well as economic.
But the commitment is hard to measure. Taking Starbucks as an example, Dimitri says, “You can do a good thing but really a better thing would be for no one to buy coffee in a coffee shop in a disposable cup. Does ethically sourcing some of your coffee, is that sufficient to outweigh all of the garbage that’s created?”
The impact of climate change is hard to estimate but the study out of Ethiopia took predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to ask what would happen to Arabica bean crops if the temperature increased within a range of 1.8° C to 4° C.
The potential losses would not only mean more expensive coffee for consumers, but fewer jobs and less economic stability for producers. According to the report, “total coffee sector employment [is] estimated at about 26 million people in 52 producing countries.” The study also reports that coffee is the second most traded commodity after oil.
In another alarm-sounding report from the World Bank, the development agency writes that though global food prices have fallen from a peak in July, “prices remain at high levels – 7 percent higher than a year ago.” Some specific crop prices are much higher still, including maize, which is 17 percent more expensive than it was in October, 2011.
In the case of coffee, Colombia recently announced a plan to offer insurance to growers to protect them from losses incurred from severe weather, according to South Africa’s Times Live.
“More people should be thinking about it and talking about it,” says Dimitri. “I don’t think that our policymakers take it as seriously as the researchers do.”
For the consumers who are concerned and have the means and access to purchase sustainably, ethically produced foods, Dimitri says, “they’re willing to make sacrifices in other areas.”
Through a sheer appeal to quality, Starbucks is hoping consumers will find that reason enough to spend on the newest varietal in its Reserve line. Plus, it’s actually not the most expensive cup of coffee ever sold, if you count add-ons. One customer with a veritable blank-check coupon went wild crafting the priciest drink he could, according to Piper Weiss, and topped out at $23.60. His drink–if you can really still call it that–consisted of, “one Java Chip Frappucino ($4.75), plus 16 shots of espresso ($12), a shot of soy milk (.60), a drop of caramel flavoring (.50), a scoop of banana puree ($1), another scoop of strawberry puree (.60), a few vanilla beans(.50), a dash of Matcha powder (.75), some protein powder (.50) and a caramel and mocha drizzle to cap it off (.60).”
Still, for a straight up cup of Joe, it takes the cake. ”It is the highest price we’ve ever had,” a spokesperson told CNBC, adding, “It raises the bar.”
October 20, 2011
Salmon farming has received its share of criticism for being detrimental to the environment. Many salmon are raised in net pens, which allow fish waste, chemicals and farming byproducts to spread into the wild. There’s also the threat of pathogens that could thrive in crowded pens and escape to harm natural fish populations. One disease, infectious salmon anemia, was once thought to be a problem exclusive to farmed Atlantic salmon. A new study by a group of researchers from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia has found that this influenza-like virus is infecting naturally ocurring salmon populations.
Infectious salmon anemia was first observed 1984 and occurs most often in overcrowded, filthy salmon pens. As the name suggests, the virus causes anemia, the condition in which a body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to deliver oxygen to its tissues. Infected fish may exhibit symptoms—such as pale gills and loss of appetite—or they may outwardly seem perfectly fine. While the disease doesn’t pose any risks to humans, it can wipe out upwards of 70 percent of a farmed salmon population.
This is the first time the disease has been found in wild fish off the coast of North America. After observing a decline in the salmon population off the British Columbia coast, researchers collected 48 specimens for study and discovering two juvenile fish infected with the disease. While there is currently no evidence to definitively link fish farming to the presence of salmon anemia in wild populations, there could be devastating ramifications, not just for the fishing industry, but for the wildlife that depends on salmon for food. “It’s a disease emergency,” James Winton, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s fish health section, told the Associated Press. “We’re concerned. Should it be introduced, it might be able to adapt to Pacific salmon.”
September 20, 2011
California is on the road to becoming the fourth state in the union to ban shark fin soup on account of the ecological impact that rising demand is having on shark populations. A bill nixing the sale, trade or possession of shark fins passed the state senate on September 6 and is awaiting governor Jerry Brown’s signature to be passed into law. The namesake ingredient for this Asian delicacy is harvested by fishermen who catch sharks, remove the fins and dump the carcasses back in the ocean. While other parts of the shark are edible or can be used for other purposes, it makes more financial sense for the fishermen to haul back the fins because they are the most valuable: they can sell (depending on size and the species of shark) for upwards of $880 per pound on the Hong Kong market. (In 2003, a fin from a basking shark sold for $57,000 in Singapore.) It is estimated that between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed worldwide each year for their fins, and with sharks unable to reproduce at such a rate to meet human demand, sustainable shark fishing is a bit unrealistic.
So what’s the big to-do over this dish? It’s certainly not the fin’s flavor—which has been described as being relatively tasteless—but rather it’s unique, rubbery texture. Once dried, processed and incorporated into the soup, the fin looks like fine, translucent noodles whose culinary value is in their mouthfeel—all the flavor has to come from the other soup ingredients. Some chefs have tried using gelatin-based substitutes, but, for those intimately familiar with the dish, imitation shark falls short of capturing the feel of the real deal.
“This is the most stunning aspect of the entire economic empire that has arisen around shark’s fin soup” environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin writes of the soup in her book Demon Fish. “It is, to be blunt, a food product with no culinary value whatsoever. It is all symbol, no substance.” Indeed, with some iterations costing upwards of $100 a bowl, it’s a dish that, if nothing else, displays one’s social status.
The dining tradition that dates back to the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 A.D.), becoming a mainstay of formal dining during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 A.D.), and it continues to be a popular dish at Chinese weddings. Opponents see the ban as an act of cultural discrimination, with the language of the bill singling out shark fin soup and giving no mention of other shark-based products, such as steaks or leather goods.
But shark populations are declining. In the 1980s, Hong Kong’s local shark populations were overfished to the point that its fishing market went bust. In the U.S., dusky shark numbers have declined by roughly 80 percent since the 1970s, with conservationists estimating that it would take upwards of 100 years for those populations to rebuild. In western Atlantic waters, hammerhead sharks have declined by up to 89 percent over the past 25 years. And in spite of cultural traditions, the international community—with the exceptions of Japan, Norway and Iceland—has placed bans on whaling because humans put such a strain on those populations. Should the same reasoning be applied to sharks?