Today’s book is Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg

As I have stated before, I spent a fellowship year in a small farming/college community in the midwest, finishing my PhD dissertation a few years ago. That particular community was big on sustainable, small, and sometimes organic farming. I remember discovering the young girl who sold me fresh, huge, green onions in her driveway and the massive peaches that grew in local orchards in the summer. I would chat with a Mennonite farmer who seemed a bit amused that I would buy watermelons for my dog (who loves them)– and when he discovered this he would give me the bruised, overripe melons (for the dog) when I would buy his other fruits and vegetables. (“So not to waste. The dog doesn’t care if it is a big overripe.” he said. He was right, the dog couldn’t tell the difference, the farmer got rid of bruised melons that he could not sell and the dog was fat and happy on her summer watermelon diet.)  The local pub bought all of its meat from a local organic producer that also slaughtered its own animals, and I remember sitting down to a meal with a friend one day, and just as my friend dug into her bacon-topped club sandwich she said “this pig had a happy life. And he tastes like he did.” (A startling statement perhaps, but anyone who has eaten locally, sustainable food can tell you that it does indeed, taste better.)

Anyway, my whole point to this is that my year in a rural farming community that was dominated by small farms (not large operations, a rarity, I know) made me think a lot about the food I eat. That is why I picked up Four Fish because fish really is the last “wild” food and because I eat a lot of fish- in fact it might be my main source of meat.

Four Fish revolves around four the major wild (and sometimes farmed) fish types that people eat. Salmon, cod, sea bass, and tuna. All fish I have eaten, all fish that any big fish eater would have tried. The author, Greenberg, is an avid fisherman himself, having spent his youth fishing in Long Island Sound.  By examining the these four types of fish, Greenberg gives the reader a micro-history of fishing, fish farming, sustainability and conservation.

This may sound boring, but it isn’t. Greenberg’s book is an eloquent plea to help preserve the fish and the act of fishing by understanding how human actions can greatly affect a species. For example, take salmon. Did you know that back when the Puritans moved into New England in the early colonial era that the rivers in Connecticut teemed with salmon? So many that they could almost reach in and grab them? The Native peoples hunted easily with just spears. The same for Cape Cod (ahem- ever wondered about the name?)  the cod that was so thick that the settlers could not believe it.

What happened to all those salmon in Connecticut? Well, the damming of the rivers destroyed their habitats. And what has happened to the cod fishing grounds in the Northern Atlantic? Well, overfishing has destroyed those stocks too. And what about the cultures that survive in fish? Greenberg shows that they (such as the Inuit peoples in Alaska) are losing their livelihood, and their very way of life (and with Native peoples that also means losing one’s culture, thus the incredibly high rates of suicide.)

The book is not all alarming- Greenberg also chronicles sustainable ways of farming fish, such as tilapia, and kahala– fish that don’t threaten the natural stocks when farmed, unlike salmon (salmon farming is incredibly problematic–let me tell you I will never look at a farmed piece of salmon the same way again.) Greenberg also chronicles why it is that mankind loves fishing for huge fish, like Tuna– because of the rush of mastering nature. His approach is remarkably evenhanded, even though he clearly has an agenda.

Greenberg’s book does for fish what Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma did for general food consumption. Greenberg wants the public to know how to carefully chose, to be informed and to take action least we destroy the very world that keeps us going. After reading this book I now know I will have to think carefully when pausing at the fish counter. Should I eat that farmed catfish or tilapia? Wild salmon is better that farmed, but really it isn’t by much. What is the true cost of eating that sea bass? I don’t think that Greenberg’s aim is to make you feel guilty, it is to make you think– think about the true costs of what you eat.

When I was a little girl my dad occasionally took me fishing. He showed me how to cast a line, to bait the hook and how to use a rod and reel. I remember the first fish I caught- a little teeny trout (I think) that I reeled in with great difficulty because it fought for its life. I was nine years old. I remember we took it home and my mom gutted it and prepared to fry it. When I looked at the little fish sitting on ice I felt sad. I had killed it, and I did not want to eat it. I said this to my dad and he said “You have to eat it. To not do so is to waste, and you dishonor the fish.” Essentially, he was telling me to take responsibility for my actions, to take responsibility for the food I was putting in my mouth, and to be grateful for the fish who gave up its life so I could eat it.

I ate the fish, and my dad had given me my first big lesson on how to look at food. Greenberg’s book continues that lesson.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C