The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Bittman Bites Again

July 24th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Posted in Sustainability

Monkfish is food you should avoid

Monkfish is food you should avoid

Back in April, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman got a good spanking from food enviro-bloggers for publishing a recipe for red snapper, a severely overfished species listed as “avoid” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Bittman explained the appearance of the snapper recipe in The Grey Lady as a “screw up,” a kind of clerical error. But now he’s back telling readers of his New York Times blog how to properly cook monkfish, another species that earns a big, fat “AVOID” from Seafood Watch.

More delicious even than Bittman’s description of braising his monkfish with prosciutto and garlic may be the unintended irony of the online advertisement next to his column directing readers to Amazon and Bittman’s book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating.

Bittman, who responded to the red snapper episode with a meandering rant on the difficulties consumers face trying to purchase sustainable seafood, so far has not explained his foray into the monkfish realm. Encouragingly, of the three dozen comments posted by readers to date, the overwhelming majority scold Bittman for suggesting it’s okay to eat monkfish. Several of them cite the “avoid” listing at Seafood Watch.

These are not shrill, bomb-throwing food Nazis taking Bittman to the woodshed, but thoughtful, concerned food lovers urging a more conscientious approach to seafood. Here’s one example:

These days, what we eat makes all the difference. I don’t think we can afford NOT to think about what we should and shouldn’t eat. I applaud the readers who are bringing sustainability to the attention of those who enjoy food. I also avoid monkfish and I see nothing wrong with discussing how responsible, or not responsible, it is to eat a certain thing.

Here’s another:

I don’t see anyone saying that you can’t eat this or that, but I agree with a lot of the posters. Journalists have a responsibility to think carefully about what they promote due to their significant influence on the largely unthinking. Sometimes our social responsibilities to each other and the environment need to outweigh our selfish culinary desires.

Bittman is hardly alone. Even with all the news about trouble in the world’s oceans it’s hard to pick up a food magazine without finding multiple recipes for endangered seafood. Some of the country’s most prominent food critics remain stubbornly silent on the issue, giving judgments about the quality of preparation but saying nothing about the appropriateness of a restaurant serving fish listed as “avoid.”

On this issue, consumers appear to be ahead of the media. I remember a time not long ago when I felt guilty mentioning to purveyors or certain writers that their fish had issues. Now you can get an Ipod application that links you directly to the Seafood Watch listings. There’s really no excuse anymore for anyone–home cooks, restaurant patrons, merchants, chefs or food writers–to be serving anything but sustainably harvested seafood.

(Greenpeace has unveiled a stinging website spoofing Trader Joe’s. Greenpeace accuses the food retailer of lulling customers into believing they are purchasing environmentally benign products, when “Traitor Joe’s” in fact markets 15 of 22 “red-listed” fish.)

So what’s wrong with monkfish?

Monkfish, a particularly ugly cuss with its huge head and monstrous row of teeth, used to be one of those things that fishermen tossed back if they found it in their nets. But as humans methodically mowed their way through the ocean food chain, monkfish, which range in Atlantic waters from the Grand Banks to North Carolina,  got a second look as possible dinner fare. In fact, its thick, somewhat resistant flesh bore a passing resemblance to lobster meat. Hence the nickname: “poor man’s lobster.” Professional chefs employed all sorts of ingenious methods to make the monkfish palatable. Heck, I remember watching Mario Batali perform magic with monkfish on Food Network and promptly embracing his braise as my own.

But that was then. The problem with monkfish is not just that it is still recovering from an “overfished” condition, but that the gear and methods used to catch it destroy the marine environment. Monkfish is a bottom dweller. A popular method of catching it is using a trawling device, which scours the ocean floor, tearing up everything in its path. A second method of catching monkfish, the gill net, ends up killing all kinds of other ocean dwellers, including sea turtles and marine mammals.

Bittman is right on one count: finding good information about the provenance of fish at the seafood counter can be maddening. The average clerk  in the average store typically has no idea where the fish he is selling actually came from, or how it was caught. But that’s no reason to buy seafood that degrades the planet. Professional journalists, food bloggers, cooks–we all have a responsibility to engage the sustainability issue when it comes to seafood. The information needed to guide your selections is easily accessible. Just go to Seafood Watch and look for the “best choice” recommendations.

When it comes to eating seafood, we can all be better stewards of the world’s oceans.

Read more great stories about how we are taking back our food system at Fight Back Fridays.

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  • Kimberly

    Thanks for this, Ed, I am a red snapper lover and had no idea it was on the watch list. I will tell my waiters from now on that their chef should check the watch list!

    a blogger

  • Ed Bruske

    Kimberly, the are many kinds of red snapper, and other fish that look like red snapper and are passed off as red snapper by unscupulous merchants. In any case, you should avoid them as they are seriously overfished. As an alternative, try Alaskan black cod (sablefish) if you see it, or farmed barramundi, or farmed striped bass.