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  • Writer's pictureMarissa Bialecki

Sustainable Seafood Talk and Dinner with Barton Seaver

Updated: Dec 24, 2018

The other week I had the opportunity to go to a sustainable seafood dinner and talk hosted by National Geographic Live, featuring chef, cookbook author and Nat Geo Fellow, Barton Seaver. The whole evening can be summed up by the simple fact that Barton just makes sense; he gets it. His passion goes beyond the basic appreciation for ingredients, and his speech touched on several points that hit home for me. He put into words exactly what I’ve been thinking and what I’ve been taught my whole life. And while the case for protecting the inhabitants of our ocean is a pretty obvious one, Barton’s argument for sustainable seafood is one that everyone needs to hear.


There’s an idea that food is this powerful force–we need it to survive; it can have such a profound pull and influence on our memory and our behavior. But there’s something else. “Food really represents a window into a broad array of cultures and histories. And it’s an opportunity to really connect to each other,” according to Barton. “It was the fluency of food that allowed me to just insert myself into a community and to find the support networks that I was so desperately in need of.”


Like writing, food is a means of communication. I happen to like both, and they’ve each got their merits. There are so many lessons to be learned when you share a meal with someone else. Not only does it connect us with others, but as Barton said, we explore the world with our forks. “Dinner is my lens of exploration. […] Everybody speaks delicious.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.


There are people who view food and this whole “foodie thing” as pretentious, but I don’t believe it is, nor should it be. Food is one of the rare things we all commonly enjoy. For that reason alone it’s as familiar to everyone as the air we breathe. Unfortunately though, we’ve gotten into somewhat of a distorted, messed up relationship with our food. There’s the obesity issue. There’s the fact that we forget where our food comes from and how it ought to be made (hint: it’s not in a factory or lab). Excuse me while I get philosophical here, but we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves and we’re at a point where we think we’re smarter than nature. We think we can grow and farm genetically modified foods with no consequence; we think it’s a good idea to work against the natural seasons; we think it’s acceptable to put wacky stuff in our foods to make them last longer and taste better. Simply put, we’ve gotten out of touch with our food.


“I’m trying to save dinner. Why? Because dinner is in jeopardy. But also because dinner provides a connection, joy, communion, health, jobs, community,” Barton says. “Family should be the first ingredient in every meal. But even if we eat alone, we’ve invited entire communities that have participated in our meal to our tables,” he says. “Dinner, I think, is the first way in which we can begin to replicate the bearing that we’ve lost in our country’s agricultural transformation when we took the culture out of agriculture.”


There was a memory Barton recounted of going to a farm in the midwest, where he rediscovered the social benefits of living in a farming community. I’m not foolish enough to think we should all go back to some idealized, honest version of farming. I’m also not advocating for some yuppie-ified, Birkenstock-wearing, overly romanticized view of farming. It’s hard work, but rewarding. And I agree with Barton that we’ve lost the culture in agriculture, and that maybe that’s partly what got us into this mess of health problems and a distorted view of food.


Continuing on the theme of food and culture, Barton added, “I began to step back and realize that regardless of my efforts I was never going to best a summer ripe tomato simply sliced on a plate. And this led me to dig a little bit deeper into my own practices in the kitchen, to take a step back from the plate and begin to identify with the communities that had brought the ingredients to me. My interest in food communities really led me to focus on the role of fishermen in our society.”


And that’s where we get to the whole focus of this dinner: sustainable seafood. “I was trying to save the fish so that I could continue to use them. I was coming to this because I wanted to save the seafood, which is also known as dead fish. I had very particular self-interests coming into this,” Barton says.


The most startling statistic Barton gave was that 90 percent of our predatory fish are gone and approximately 70 percent of the world’s fish population are overfished. Once those fish are gone, they’re gone for good, folks. Part of the solution is that we need to take only what we need from the ocean. We also need to educate ourselves, and yes, change our appetites a bit to eat fish that are more plentiful while other species recover. It also wouldn’t hurt to put some more vegetables on the plate and maybe scale down our portions of fish a bit, as Barton pointed out. I know that’s a tough pill to swallow, since I could probably eat my weight in scallops, but if you want certain seafood to still be around in years to come then we do need to scale back on seafood portions.


Overall, the event was very interesting and I had the opportunity to grab an advance copy of Barton’s new cookbook, For Cod and Country. Come back tomorrow to read my interview with Barton about his book, more about sustainable seafood and what you can do as a seafood consumer to be more sustainable.

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