Archive for November, 2010

If you ever wanted proof that the devil is in the details, try buying a piece of fish. More specifically, try finding something that tastes good, is not laden with toxins, and is harvested in a way that does not cause undo harm to the environment.

Such were my modest goals as I approached the supermarket fish counter last week looking for dinner. You may laugh at my use of the term ‘modest,’ but I find it curious that wanting food which is good to eat, doesn’t poison us, and doesn’t decimate the planet seems like a lot to ask.

The world’s fisheries are a dismal mess. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that over 1 billion people rely on fish as a major source of protein, and the demand continues to rise.

Yet, the same report states that one quarter of the world’s fisheries are already overexploited. According to The Census of Marine Life only 10% of large ocean fish, such as shark, swordfish, marlin, cod and halibut, are still swimming around in our echoing oceans.

By the 1990s the cod population off the eastern Canadian coast had dropped to 1% of historic levels and it is as yet unclear if this last whisper of cod stock is enough to allow the species to recover.

Many of our remaining fish are too toxic to eat. In Maine, pregnant women, children, and anyone who might become pregnant (that’s a lot of people, mind you) are advised to not have even one fish a year from Maine’s inland waters due to concerns over mercury and other toxins such as DDT. Globally, many large predatory fish such as tuna and swordfish, are also contaminated with mercury.

Modern methods of harvesting fish often wreak havoc on marine ecosystems. Shrimp farms in Thailand have wiped out nearly half the mangrove forests along the eastern and southern coasts. Huge weighted trawl nets that are dragged across the sea bottom destroy everything in their paths, including coral reefs. Bycatch, or fish and other animals, such as dolphins, that are caught unintentionally, form up to 25% by weight of the world’s fish harvest. It’s not a pretty picture.

As I stood at the fish counter what I really wanted was a label that read: YUMMY FISH, beloved by children, reasonably priced, poison-free, and carefully harvested to preserve breeding populations, offer decent wages to fishing families and protect cute sea turtles (and other slimier but still important marine creatures).

What I saw instead was fresh vs. frozen, wild vs. farmed, and country of origin. Unfortunately, with the exception of price, none of what I saw on the supermarket tags gave me the information I most wanted to know.

I needed help and I’d come prepared, having just received a pocket guide to choosing sustainably harvested seafood, produced by the scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The guide is regionally specific, and contains three lists of seafood: “Best Choices, Good Alternatives, and Avoid.”

The recommendations focus on the environmental impacts of a given fishery. Although fish with consumption advisories due to high mercury are flagged, that fact alone doesn’t appear to affect placement on the first choice list.

I peered at my card. Haddock was on the list of second best choices, but only if caught by “hook and line;” trawled haddock was to be avoided. The person at the counter did not know how the fish was caught.

Tilapia appeared on all three lists: best if farmed in the US, good if farmed in Central America, to be avoided if farmed in Asia. The tilapia at the counter was from South America.

Sea scallops were a best choice but cost $14.99 a pound. Bay scallops, which were less expensive, did not appear on the list.

Maine lobster was on the second best list, and, while it may be a good alternative for the planet, it’s a crummy alternative for a quick weeknight dinner.

After nearly half an hour, I found four choices that were on the best or second best list: U.S. swordfish (a second choice for environmental impacts, but also flagged for potentially high mercury), wild Alaskan salmon (a best choice and a poster child for a well-managed fishery), U.S. farmed catfish, and sea scallops.

I finally made a rare splurge on sea scallops largely because after all that time mulling over my purchase I needed something I could put on the table in five minutes.

The card was almost unuseable; most of the choices didn’t mesh with what was available locally and the process was extremely time-consuming. I’m a firm believer in the idea that, to a degree, we buy the world we want to live in, but this situation was over the top.

The real problem is that this is not a problem that should be solved by citizens at the fish counter. It should not be the job of parents buying dinner to ensure that they are getting healthy food, harvested in a way that leaves their kids a healthy planet.

Non-profits have better things to do than to tie themselves in knots keeping people updated about the impacts of each and every fishery and each and every harvesting method.

This is the job of a sane national food policy. Perhaps we should leave our fish cards at home and call our representatives.

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On my to-do-list since we bought our house six years ago has been to get a new entry door to our mud room. The current door, and unfortunately the one we use most often, is a horrible beaten slab of wood, shedding handfuls of paint at the slightest provocation.

I’ve spent a little time poking around for a used replacement door, but I didn’t want to invest a lot of time looking and I was having trouble finding one that was the right size. My carpenter, however, knew I was door-hunting and last week he called to say he’d caught one.

He was renovating another house and was taking a door to the landfill when he realized it was a perfect fit for our mud porch. It was a good steel door: exterior grade, with a glass panel, in great condition. And, it was free.

This may seem like a stroke of good luck, but there’s another force at work here and it goes simply by the name of patience. I’ve known I needed another door for years. Instead of going to the store and buying one, I talked to a few people, looked around a bit, and then I waited.

Unless I’m in desperate need (or getting new plants for my garden–an activity from which nothing can stop me) this is my preferred method for acquiring stuff. The benefits to waiting are many. For one, things that turn up on your doorstep are often free. They are also frequently more interesting and of better quality than the things you might pick up new.

For the last 15 years, we’ve covered our bed with an old green blanket that my mother salvaged from the dregs left behind by a departing neighbor. It was a fairly hideous item; however, it was also the right size and weight. Figuring something would eventually turn up to replace it, I waited.

Last month I was poking around in my dad’s apartment when I came across a glorious patchwork quilt, of just the right size and weight, tucked away in a drawer. I remember my parents picking it out from a sale of Sioux Indian artwork on a trip to the Dakotas when we were children.

My father was thrilled that we had a use for it, and now it lights up our bedroom every day. I’m happy that I never found another quilt; I don’t have to be torn about which to use, or which to keep stored in a drawer. It’s oddly pleasant to have waited into my mid-40’s for this quilt.

Then there was the case of my grandmother’s rolling pin. I’m not much of a baker but I do occasionally like to make my grandmother’s Danish pastry recipe. At the point where one is supposed to roll out the dough with a rolling pin, I’d use a wine bottle instead. I did think it would be nice to have a real rolling pin, especially when the dough would stick to the glass, but it seemed silly to buy one just to use twice a year.

When my grandmother passed away in Denmark, a box of somewhat random keepsakes was packed up and sent to the family in America. Out of this box came, of all the curious items, her old heavy, worn wooden rolling pin, smelling faintly of almond extract. I can picture my aunts, who all no doubt had rolling pins of their own, packing up this box and hoping that somehow one of us might need this intimate piece of my grandmother’s daily life.

When we opened the package, my sister, who knew I was stubbornly refusing to buy a rolling pin, simply laughed; then she handed me the smooth wooden cylinder. I’m sure that this wonderful tool found its way to me because I waited for it. I love that I use it to make the same pastries that my grandmother made.

It always seems like an amazing coincidence to find exactly what I’m looking for without a lot of effort or expense, but really it’s just a side effect of the intense volume of consumer goods in which we are constantly awash. With the same patience required of anyone who has ever gone out fishing, you just stick your finger into the flood and eventually you can catch whatever you need.

Nowadays, a number of websites, such as Craig’s List and Freecycle, make it easy to find local people who want what you have or have what you want. The process is less magical than calmly waiting to see what turns up, but it’s also a lot more efficient.

Last summer my neighbor asked me to help her find a home for a mattress that was headed to the dump the next day. I posted it on Freecycle and it was picked up within hours by a woman who commented how nice it would be not to sleep on the floor anymore. My neighbor’s family was saved a trip to the dump as well as the mattress drop-off fee.

As we gobble up the earth’s resources at an alarming rate, spewing pollution out at every step, at least we should make good use of the stuff we’ve already made. And, in a culture that revels in instant gratification, I’ve found there is also pleasure to be had in pausing for a while to see what shows up on the doorstep. Now if I could just find a chicken coop…

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