A Fishy Confession–Double Standards

Upstream Swimmers

I eat seafood only when I’m on a seacoast.  Never in Vermont. Or at least not by choice.

I know that this rather severe, absolute rule flows from having grown up six miles from the ocean, and from spending childhood summers in a cottage overlooking the salty water–water that was once filled with lobsters and cod, haddock and salmon, its mudflats and rocks with shellfish.  We ate fish often and never really thought about where it came from (as long as it wasn’t from the then-polluted river)–if we didn’t catch it ourselves, we knew it had lived quite close to home. My family still eats this way. One of my brothers lives in a historic fishing town on the Atlantic, the other in the same sort of place on the Pacific, my mother still that six miles from the ocean, summers in the cottage.  They eat from their local seas.  That makes sense to me as long as the fishing practices are sustainable and humane.

Vermont is land-locked.  No sea within 200 miles.  And so no seafood on my table.  People (i.e. my husband, who grew up in the Mid-west) think I take things too far.

hard choices

But I just can’t get my head around people eating seafood away from the sea.  Sushi in the Chicago airport?  No way.   Or the weekly lobster bakes at lakeside restaurants in Vermont–? You’ve got to be kidding. Or restaurants in Portland, Oregon serving lobster when the Dungeness crab season is in full swing along their own coast? I experienced this strangeness just a few days ago when I was out there for work. Or Maine restaurants serving Alaskan King salmon?  Or, yes, any kind of fish in Vermont unless someone I know has caught it.

I know I know, most seafood is flash frozen right after it is caught, and so the “freshness” of the food is not the question.  There’s just something strange about being in a place, as I was last week for work in Oregon, that has fantastic fish and yet being offered fish from Alaska and Maine, and probably the Gulf of Mexico, too.  It’s like seeing elk in a Vermont restaurant, wild boar in New Jersey.

Easy for me to say when as part of my work I travel so much.  I can taste Pacific salmon in Oregon, Atlantic in Maine.  I can go to the local.

And there’s another issue. Is what is being touted as local, truly that?  Take the Boston Globe’s recent investigative series on the fish being served in Massachusetts restaurants–80% is imported.  And of the restaurant fish they tested, almost 50% wasn’t what the menu said it was. Unbelievable.

Trail of the Localvore

There’s more.  A confession.

Do I allow myself a double standard in criticizing the eating of wild foods from afar and yet finding no problem stocking my own shelves with olive oil from across the ocean, citrus from across the continent, spices and tea and coffee from across the planet?  Perhaps.  Probably.  And absolutely yes when I overlook local wines and even sometimes cheese for those made thousands of miles away.  Where do I draw the line when choosing local?  An absolute 250 mile line as ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan explored while writing Coming Home to Eat?  The 100 mile line plus the knapsack-worth of goods from other places, the Marco Polo exception, as Michael Pollan describes?  Or as it suits me?

I don’t have an answer for myself.  Yet. I’m still working on it.

Maybe I can do the local wine thing. Maybe. It’s on my list of possible resolutions for 2012.  But give up olive oil?  Not a chance.

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Categories: Environment, lessons, Local, Musing

4 Comments on “A Fishy Confession–Double Standards”

  1. barbara t. ganley
    December 15, 2011 at 9:35 am #

    I suppose this eating local issue means that you will have to have a greenhouse to raise olive trees and find an olive press on ebay……..yikes!!!

  2. December 15, 2011 at 9:45 am #

    I’ve certainly been thinking about a greenhouse for citrus and olives and to grow greens throughout the year, and would get one in a flash if the best glass ones (plastic seems contradictory to sound environmental practices–what kinds of gasses do they give off?) weren’t made in British Columbia (once again that local problem) and if I knew that I was doing right by the earth in getting one. I’m still not convinced that a greenhouse (a heated one, even solar-ly so) makes any sense at all up here.

    As you see, I certainly haven’t worked out the issue. I lean toward the Marco Polo exceptions, stuffing my saddlebags with olive oil and lemons!

  3. Amy
    December 15, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    I really enjoyed this post because it helped me to pull out and examine an irritating little grain of discomfort with a localvore outlook that I largely embrace. I am persuaded by the environmental and health-enhancing arguments for eating local. I have also experienced the spiritual centeredness that comes from being rooted in a place, and taking into oneself the nourishment offered there. But there is also a historical perspective that tends to get left out of discussions about the boundaries of localism.

    Without making the entire historical case, let me just suggest it by mentioning that the spice trade made us conscious of the world as a whole for the first time, and brought us the richness of other races, places, cultures, and cuisines. Just as the first foods to be traded globally were those that kept and travelled well, they also tended to be those that enhanced rather than replacing the local substance of the importer’s diet.

    A few centuries later, people began to follow their spices in waves of human migration that are still breaking on our (and other) shores, and the foods they brought with them have both helped to keep their cultures alive in a new place, and built bridges to new communities.

    So I think an argument could be made for opening our cupboards to the spice of life – and probably the wine, and the olive oil as well — wherever it comes from, as a way of celebrating and sustaining the diversity of people who share the planet.

  4. December 15, 2011 at 1:21 pm #


    Thanks for the thought-provoking and spot-on comment. As the daughter of an historian, I found your argument whispering in my ear as I wrote this post, but I can be guilty of falling back on that reasoning all too easily when, say, I feel like selecting a French goat cheese instead of a perfectly wonderful Vermont version. And since I really do not like Vermont wine much as I like the winemakers and the idea of Vermont wine, I conveniently hurry over to that argument quite often. Do I choose the French version some of the time, the Vermont most?

    That said, it is a good argument–if I pay attention to the full flavor and smell and texture of that French cheese or wine, I will surely learn something about that part of France, its farming practices, its terroir, its culture and how a Vermont-produced food will never be French. And the difference opens whole worlds to me–if I pay attention. That’s a useful reminder but it should not be, I think, in this time of environmental collapse, a choice made lightly. Even with those foods we cannot or do not grow locally. I think it’s a good thing for me to think about that bottle of olive oil, that jar of Moroccan spices before I purchase them, thinking not only about what I learn about the human world through tasting them, but what harm I may do to the planet through buying them.

    I love how you conclude by counseling us to “[open] our cupboards to the spice of life” and your note of celebration. You also remind me to take the issue seriously but not myself!

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