Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Mark Morford on Sushi Gluttony...

Give me sushi, give me death
This luscious tuna nigiri meets the ocean's plummeting fish stocks. Can you reconcile?
By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

It's times like this I wish I was a heartless Republican.

It's times like this I almost wish I didn't really give a damn, that I lived in happy, savage denial of humankind's true impact on the health of the planet, that I didn't have much of a conscience and therefore felt the world and all its natural resources and all its cute little squiggly creatures were merely here for my enjoyment and my wanton exploitation, all here to feed my omnivorous appetites and to hell with environmental protections and respectful, restrained consumerism and, hey waitress bring me another order, oh what the hell, make it a double because hey, I'm an American, I'm entitled.

Alas, that isn't me. It probably isn't you. Hell, it's not really even most Republicans. Just those in Congress. And maybe Utah. And Montana. But never mind that now.

This time, it was all about the sushi. It was all about a fine lunch I was enjoying with a friend over at a raw fish joint in the Mission when it struck me that it was the third time in a week I'd enjoyed a fabulous sushi meal — not at all an unusual rate, I realize, for sushi-drenched San Francisco, and also increasingly common in America overall as mall sushi explodes in popularity — but still, not exactly a cheap way to live, especially on a (non) humble columnist's salary. But hey, you only live once, yes? Sort of?

This is the problem: Sushi has become one of those things. Like Cate Blanchett, like a Led Zeppelin reunion, like enlightened anal sex, there is simply nothing else like it, no other comparable cultural experience. Prepared well (as most San Francisco sushi is), sushi remains a unparalleled delight, so much so that it's nearly impossible to adore it and not at some point say out loud to anyone who will listen, "Man, this stuff is so effing good, if I could afford it, I'd eat sushi every single day. Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

Except, of course, for the fish. Except for the nagging issue of the massive, unnerving collapse, for how report after report and new scientific revelation after dire international prognostication now says, with increasing alarm, that we are actually raping our oceans far more severely than we ever imagined, that researchers actually haven't been measuring all that accurately in the past and when we now seriously study the historic record, well, it appears that the overall volume of edible marine life is plunging faster than Dick Cheney's soul into the fiery pits of hell. Which, as you well know, is pretty goddamn fast.

In fact, a recent New Yorker piece (a profile of radical environmentalist and whaling ship-rammer Paul Watson), cited the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as stating that nearly 70 percent of the world's major fisheries are already "fully exploited" or "overexploited." One ominous report, appearing in Nature a few years ago, estimated that we've now lost a staggering 90 percent of our once-overflowing bounty of large predatory fish such as tuna, marlin and swordfish, and we're still hacking away.

It might very well not be that calamitous. Hell, it might only be, you know, 50 percent. Or the fish could all be lying. But no matter how you slice it, at the rate we're eating our way through the oceans right now, many scientists say that the seas could be nearly barren of most edible stock, from tuna down to calamari and sea slugs, by the time your toddler turns 40 and the ice caps finally melt and the sun turns black and God goes, "See?"

It used to be easy. Just a handful of years ago, you could simply look up the list, see which few wild-caught fish were severely impacted and which were in most danger and adjust your diet accordingly, simply avoid them at the supermarket and refuse to order that nice wild sea bass or swordfish from the restaurant menu, cast your vote and let your feelings be known through sheer market forces, and feel like you'd done your part.

Not anymore. Fact is, there exists almost no wild-caught species that isn't impacted, brutally overfished, or threatened with collapse — or soon will be. And that includes many shellfish. And farmed seafood is little better, in terms of both health and negative environmental impact. Not to mention mercury, PCBs, hormones and other toxins.

So then, the ever-present question: How do you respond? What to do with this dire and ugly information?

Slate ran a fascinating piece recently, a discussion between two authors, Sasha Issenberg and Trevor Corson, each with a new sushi-related book written from a different perspective (the former historic/economic, the latter culinary) but each complementing the others' research and both more or less dovetailing on the point that, while sushi makes for fascinating study as both a culinary phenomenon and example of global commerce in action, we are, at the current rate of engorgement, very much on the verge of collapse. With sushi in particular, it seems like it's a case of too much, too fast, too easy, too cheap.

Ah, ain't that America?

One notable takeaway from their discussion: America's (and the world's) sushi craze might very well be short-lived, a quick, gluttonous blip on the radar screen of hot culinary trends as increasing demand far outstrips global supply and meager international measures to protect the oceans do little to stop overfishing, and soon there's nothing left of sushi but some seaweed and the sticky rice (which, by the way, is what "sushi" actually refers to: the rice. Sushi does not actually mean raw fish. But again, this is America. Such facts matter almost not at all).

The fact is, sushi should not nearly be so cheap nor so ubiquitous. Like beef, we should actually be eating far less of it, honor it when we do, treat it like the precious delicacy it is (a point reiterated by the authors, who say they eat raw fish sushi only rarely, and very selectively, and really savor the fish when they do). But again, therein lies the problem: The free market doesn't do moderation. We don't do respect and restraint and honor. We just eat.

So then, where do you draw your lines? How far can you let yourself and your cravings go? Is it not easier to deny it all, to just pretend you're one of those heartless conservatives and simply shrug it all off and claim that the free market economy will figure it all out, just say "screw it" and eat up all the fish and burn up through the planet's resources and pillage whatever else we like until it's all gone, and then figure something else out? Hey, it worked for oil. Oh wait.

I do not know the answer. Or rather, I sort of do, but sometimes the answer seems so much larger and more hopeless than just limiting my raw fish intake (which I hereby vow to do) and staying informed and supporting the right anti-ocean-raping causes and eating more burritos.

Except not the kind with that horrible industrial chicken, because that's vile in an entirely different way. So maybe more soy-based foods, except, oh holy crap no, unfermented soy is extremely bad for you and GMO soy might be poisoning the American diet so maybe more ... what, organic cabbage? Goat cheese? Toast? Ice cubes? Lots of deep, meaningful gulps of (polluted, toxic) air, and praying?


Thoughts about this column? E-mail Mark.

Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SFGate and in the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle. To get on the e-mail list for this column, please click here and remove one article of clothing.

Mark's column also has an RSS feed and an archive of past columns, which includes another small photo of Mark potentially sufficient for you to recognize him in the street and give him gifts.


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