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'American Seafood' Author Recommends Putting 'Underloved' Fish On the Plate


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Barton Seaver, has dedicated his career to getting people excited about fish - first, as a chef, and later, as an author and advocate for sustainable seafood. He'd like to see us eating more of the underappreciated species of fish that are not endangered. His new book is called "American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery From Sea To Shining Sea."

Seaver got his start at the Culinary Institute of America and went on to work in several restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. He left the restaurant industry to become a National Geographic fellow and now directs the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health's Center for Health and the Global Environment. He spoke to us from a studio in Portland, Maine, where he's living very close to the ocean and lots of fresh seafood.

Barton Seaver, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you describe your approach to seafood as not exactly a sustainable approach, more like a restorative approach. What's the difference?

BARTON SEAVER: Well, I think that we don't have a true historical understanding of what abundance in our waters is or what it was. And so when we talk about sustainability, I think we need to be talking about it in - I don't - big-thinking terms. Let's not just sustain what we have. Let's restore environments. Let's restore ecosystems and, very importantly, let's restore the economies based on them. And let's really build a new legacy in which coastal communities can thrive.

GROSS: So what are some of the fish that you think fit in the category of working toward a restorative approach? When I say fish, I mean fish to eat.

SEAVER: Well, I think across the board in the United States, we have exemplary fisheries management, and that's based on the Magnuson-Stevens Act. And so in that way, all of our fisheries are managed based on very sound science and best-in-class science, as well as input from regional and local fishers, as well as scientists and economists. That said, from an environmental standpoint, there are species like farm-raised oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, seaweed - or sea greens, they're often called - that don't just maintain quality of ecosystems, they improve them.

GROSS: So scallops are abundant? Do...

SEAVER: Both in the wild, yes, and more so ever being farmed.

GROSS: OK. So what are some of the small fish that are thriving now because of the changing fish ecosystem in the oceans?

SEAVER: Well, nationally, we are beginning to see a resurgence of menhaden, which is not considered a food fish but is - has been considered the most important fish in the ocean, in that it is dinner for just about everything bigger than it - but also, herring, sardines. We're seeing the slow rise and return of the legacy fisheries in California and other areas in the Pacific Northwest. And I think, in many ways, also, what we're seeing is a renewed interest in these species from a food standpoint. And I think that's very important - that as we see the resurgence of species, we're looking at them from a viewpoint of, what is their highest and best use and purpose for us, not just as members of the ecosystem, but part of our economies and part of our idea of what our food system is?

GROSS: Wait, you write that 95 percent of the fish that Americans eat are from 10 species. So I'm guessing that includes tuna, salmon, flounder, tilapia, halibut - what else?

SEAVER: Well, tuna, salmon and shrimp, actually, are about 90 - about 65 percent of the total consumption, right there - just those three species categories. And then beyond that, we have, basically, flaky, white-fleshed fish - catfish, pollock, cod, sometimes haddock. You have basa swai, tilapia, you know, forms of catfish. And so really, we eat tuna, shrimp, salmon, forms of flaky, white-fleshed fish and some clams. And that's kind of what Americans eat when it comes to seafood.

GROSS: Shrimp used to be, like, a delicacy when I was growing up. They were expensive. You'd eat them for, like, special occasions. How did shrimp become such a kind of a cheaper, more common food?

SEAVER: Well, that was really the advent of the farmed seafood industry, especially around shrimp and coming out of cheaper production areas in Southeast Asia as well as throughout Latin America. And so just the price of shrimp bottomed out. And also, the advent of shrimp as a aspirational food, as well, came up through sort of the early teens and '20s with its introduction as shrimp cocktail in the haute cuisine temples of New York City, and it's sort of taken off from there.

GROSS: So, you know, when it comes to farmed shrimp, I have heard warnings about the quality of the shrimp and then the quality of the environment that they're raised in. So what are your thoughts about farmed shrimp?

SEAVER: So with farmed shrimp, you're right. There are a host of issues associated with that industry, but it's largely a story of bad actors within an otherwise, I think, very positive international story and international industry. When we are making decisions about seafood, we should look to understand how our choices impact ecosystems. And one of the best ways to do that is through Best Aquaculture Practices or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, both of which are certifications that can help us to understand the provenance and the quality and wholesomeness of products that we are getting and their environmental impacts.

But also, I think that there's a story here about volume and value. And with wild-capture shrimp here in America, there's a very different product. There's a very different flavor profile, even different flavor profiles amongst different species from different areas. And that's not a conversation we have a lot. You know, we talk about wines in terms of their provenance and the qualities imbued to them by the terroir in which they're grown. But we don't often talk about seafood as being, really, of a place, tasting of that - of those waters and even the cultures that come from it.

GROSS: I think we talk about it with salmon.

SEAVER: Indeed, indeed.

GROSS: So I was encouraged to read in your book that you think fish farming is improving. What are some of the improvements that you have seen?

SEAVER: Well, fish farming is, as a global commodity, such a young industry. The first salmon net pens went into the water in America in the late 1960s, really weren't a viable large-scale industry until the 1980s. And if you think about how far an industry can have advanced in that time, not only with selective breeding - finding genetic strains within salmon - this is not genetic modification, but selective breeding, finding those that are better suited to being raised in captivity - advances in the feed - you know, how much fish meal or fish oil needs to go in versus replacing some of that with soybeans or corn or algae, even, to replace some of the omega-3s that we'd find in fish feed - and also, antibiotic use - a lot of these issues that have been a legacy sort of character of the aquaculture industry, have been solved, to a large extent. And the technology to further improve them is ever-advancing at a very rapid pace. And so I look at aquaculture as an industry that is ripe, perhaps more so than any other food system, for incredible advances, rapid expansion and very much improved environmental performance.

GROSS: So among the fish that you recommend eating because there's an abundance of them, and there isn't a sustainability problem surrounding them, is hake, skate and cusk. I've eaten skate in restaurants. I don't know that I see it when I buy fish. I don't think I've ever heard of cusk. So tell us about these fish.

SEAVER: Well, these are all fish that come from, you know, the New England groundfishery (ph) and are part of a long history that we've had of extracting resources from the tempestuous waves of the North Atlantic. And these are species that we've woefully underloved for hundreds of years. And we've been so busy and I think sort of married to the fact that we will tell the fishermen and the oceans what we're willing to eat for dinner - and, well, that has been cod - that we've sort of forsaken some of the other culinary explorations and opportunities that are there. And in doing so, we've created what I call an irrational economy in that telling fishermen and the oceans what we're willing to eat takes away from us the question that says, well, hey, what are you able to provide? And when the answer is hake, it's a beautifully soft, curved, textured flake fish with a wonderful sweetness of its flesh that makes it the fish that fishermen go home with at the end of their days. But we just don't get our - we don't give ourselves the opportunity to explore these because we're not asking the simple question of, you know, what's the catch of the day? And when we do so, those options suddenly find their way to our plate.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Barton Seaver. He directs the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. And he's the author of the new book "American Seafood." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Barton Seaver, the author of the new book "American Seafood" and the director of the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health.

So you used to be a chef, and you had some pretty well-known restaurants in Washington, D.C. So during the years you worked in restaurants, did you see some fish become popular and fashionable and other fish fall off the menu?

SEAVER: Certainly. I, you know - I was coming up through the ranks when Chilean sea bass was coming up through the ranks, you know, instantly the darling of the culinary world - orange roughy the same. And during my tenure as a chef, I also saw those fish disappear from sale sheets or become priced so exorbitantly that they no longer fit onto my menu space.

And that was part of the realization, the rationalization that I had for really beginning to take a second look at the ingredients that I was using and not saying just because it's familiar means it's good. I began to really look at seafood as a means to explore not only relationships with the fishers, the farmers that were producing it but also with the incredible abundance of flavors, of histories, of personalities seafood can bring to our plates.

GROSS: So why did orange roughy and Chilean sea bass go in and then out of fashion? What accounts for their sudden popularity and then their move off the menu because I can't remember the last time I've seen either on a menu.

SEAVER: Well, these are both very slow-growing deep water species that live in - largely in parts of the ocean that are unregulated and unenforced with fisheries management - and so this sort of gold rush mentality to go after these fish - Chilean sea bass, some of them a hundred years old or more, orange roughy the same.

So this incredible boom in popularity led to this, you know, massive overexploitation of the species that simply, from a biological standpoint, could not keep up with the demand that we were placing on it. And you know, species such as those that come to sexual maturity at such an advanced age, you know, sometimes, molt, you know, 60, 70 years old.

GROSS: You're kidding me (laughter).

SEAVER: Well, and these are the species that we're going after with such reckless abandon. Of course they were destined to fail.

GROSS: Wow. So I had no idea that they didn't reach sexual maturity till that age or that they lived to be, like, a hundred. So when you eat a fish that's a hundred years old, you've eaten a hundred years' worth of preparation that's going to take another hundred years to replace that fish.

SEAVER: Exactly. And this was part of the reason why - I mean, this was the reason why it collapsed. But the cautionary tale of that - of this that's sort of the takeaway for me is not that fishing those species is necessarily wrong. It's fine if we fish them sustainably, if we fish them with best-in-class science, managing that that effort.

It's just - there's nothing unsustainable about fishing. There's only unsustainable demand. And that's a market pressure. And that's why I think that we as consumers, we as chefs need to become more educated about the wealth of diversity of seafood that's available to us so that we are celebrating and placing our demand across a broad footprint on the ecosystem rather than these very acute sort of gold rush mentality fisheries that we've seen not work out in our favor or to the environment's favor.

GROSS: You write about some of the things to look for when you're buying fish. And here's one I didn't think of. Make sure it's been properly eviscerated without puncturing the gallbladder. I didn't even know fish had gallbladders until you mentioned it. How can you even tell if the gallbladder has been punctured when you're buying fish?

SEAVER: Oh (laughter), you'll know. There will be a viscous sort of oily green or a yellow stain on the belly portion of the fish. And that will unfortunately have tainted the entire eating experience. But really that's something that should - if you're buying fillet fish and you see that, please start shopping at another store.

GROSS: Right, OK. You said the surface of the fish should not be dry by sight or by touch. And fish should always have a slight sheen except for scallops. Would you elaborate on that?

SEAVER: The fish should exude this sort of idea that it is still, you know, right from the water and that when filets have that glisten to them, that they still are - they haven't had time to dry out in a case or have been properly handled and kept on ice the entire time. That's something you want to look for. And with scallops, it's the exact opposite, you know?

There's a long history of scallops, which is really just the muscle of a larger animal. It's the muscle that opens and shuts the shell. So it's just that muscle. And there's a long history of those muscles having been treated with various brines to add water weight to them which is a perfectly legal method. However, you end up with a muscle structure that has been sort of engorged with liquid to the point where it doesn't hold that liquid once cooked. And so you lose any ability to get a sear on it - a good caramelized crunch on the outside.

So simply put, look for dry pack or untreated scallops. And this is a means to guarantee that you're going to get a product that is nothing but that muscle, that firm, beautiful muscle that's going to give you all of the sort of piscatorial pleasure that you're looking for.

GROSS: You said make sure that the fish hasn't been immersed or washed in fresh water. How would you know in a store if it was?

SEAVER: In this case, this is something that you talk to your fishmonger about. Also, if you're looking behind them and in the sink they have a bunch of fish filets thawing out in some cold water - well, that's a sign right there that you, again, should be shopping somewhere else. But really, the key to getting quality with seafood is simply having a relationship with the man or woman selling you the product.

GROSS: So is it a bad idea when you get fish home before you cook it to rinse it?

SEAVER: In fresh water, I'd say yes, but I...

GROSS: What's wrong with a freshwater rinse?

SEAVER: It's just going to rob, wash off some of the flavors that are there, some of the oils that are on the surface. But I do recommend with just about every piece of fish that there is to give it a quick dunk in a low-sodium brine. And what this will do is it will help the texture of the fish become a little more taut. It'll give you a little bit more leeway and sort of structural stability during the cooking process.

It'll also - that salt penetrates deep into the muscular structure and begins to sort of just accentuate and highlight the natural flavors. And in doing so, not only do you get a piece of fish that's going to taste better, fuller, more like it is. You're also going to get a piece of fish that's easier to cook and that's going to retain more moisture.

GROSS: Do you eat red meat or poultry?

SEAVER: I do but with great rarity, actually. And I have no issue with meat or poultry. But I just find seafood to be so captivating and so interesting in all of its nuances and flavors that here in Portland, Maine, I have opportunity eat seafood probably 8 to 12 times a week for a couple of meals a day. And I take that opportunity.

GROSS: So what do you do for the holidays? Do you make fish?

SEAVER: Yeah, yeah. There's a lot of fish hanging around my house.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SEAVER: Less so since my wife said I can't hang salt cod in the mudroom anymore. She got hit in the head with it a couple of times...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SEAVER: ...Taking off her boots. And the excuse that - but honey, it's the mistletoe of the sea - it didn't work. So - but we make a lot of meals based around the Feast of the Seven Fishes idea, a great tradition in the Italian-American heritage. And yeah, seafood's a great thing to entertain with because it's not something that people are really familiar with. And so it's a way to show off and to really have fun with a meal without necessarily getting complicated or, you know, doing some culinary acrobatics. But really just introducing people to new ingredients in fun ways is a wonderful gift in and of itself.

GROSS: Well Barton Seaver, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

SEAVER: Thank you so much - such a pleasure.

GROSS: Barton Seaver is the author of the new book "American Seafood" and directs the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. After a break, Jennifer Egan will talk about her novel "Manhattan Beach" which has been appearing on top 10 lists, including our book critic Maureen Corrigan's. And film critic Justin Chang and rock critic Ken Tucker will tell us what's on their top 10 lists. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.