Friday, May 2, 2014

#foodgentrification: seafood, class, and culture

I have been absent from this blog for candycrush a good reason; I've been using my time wisely to finish my dissertation. I have, as of today, deposited it, so I'm back. I started writing this blog about a month ago, so forgive the ridiculously old references!

Last year, I wrote a blog about consumers' preoccupation with certain fish species. Species such as tuna, salmon, cod, and Chilean sea bass are coveted by people seeking "super foods" or the next popular and exotic item on the menu- but these species are also some of the most endangered. I ended that post by asking how educators and officials might work to emphasize the value of local, more abundant, but less coveted, fish species (this list would be different for every region).

I'd like to revisit my suggestion about raising awareness of locally abundant but less coveted species. I'm coming from two places with this blog: the place of class in fish consumption and how the elevation of local species might hurt traditional food cultures.

Last week About a month and a half ago, John Stewart and The Daily Show expressed outrage and indignation that media outlets considered the purchase of seafood, and particularly 'organic salmon' and 'crab legs,' too luxurious for people receiving public assistance (see the video below). I don't include this video for political purposes- make of Stewart's rant what you will- but instead, I found it interesting because it is neither new nor should it be surprising that seafood, and particularly certain forms of seafood, are culturally linked with luxury and class status. The more dear the product, for logistical or environmental reasons, the more luxurious.

Class is an interesting concept to talk about when discussing the consumption of fish and other sea products. Cultures and societies that have grown up around the water have traditionally developed their protein consumption habits around water-sourced foods. Because of the delicate and perishable nature of seafood, cultures of consumption were not necessarily high class. Yes, the wealthy got the first pick of the day's catch at its freshest- paying full price for the choicest products. But the leftovers did not go to waste. If a fishmonger wanted to unload the day's catch, he or she marked down the catch throughout the day, allowing the consumption of fish by every social class, not just the rich. Of course, buying fish is not the only way to get it; if you live near the water, chances are you can catch enough seafood to supplement your diet or for subsistence. In these two ways, all classes of people in watery regions have developed ways of eating local seafood. While preparations differ, the entire community relied on that source of protein.

But, this changed. How, you ask, did this change? Refrigeration.

With the rise of refrigeration, highly perishable seafood that previously could only be enjoyed close to its source, could be shipped further and further inland. It was still expensive, and the more perishable the product (cold water ocean fish being the first to spoil) the more status from eating it. With refrigeration, what was once a local staple became big business and most lower classes near the water were priced out of this protein source. The more in-demand the "fancy" fish became to upper class people inland, the more the lower classes near the shore were forced to make due with "trash" fish or by-catch that people inland were uninterested in consuming.

**This doesn't mean that poor people on the shore will eat just anything- food is always tied to culture and class. The crepidule (Atlantic slipper snail) is an invasive species threatening crops of oysters and mussels in France's Mont Saint-Michel Bay. The snail is apparently pretty tasty and super abundant but because of social perceptions of the snail as "a parasite," locals won't touch it. Instead, entrepreneurs in the area are trying to rebrand the snail as a delicacy in high-end Parisian restaurants- a bit of a reverse of the above process.**

This is basically where we are today. People both inland and on the shore who can afford to, purchase the most coveted and freshest sea food. The Lower classes' seafood diet is relegated to species that these higher classes deem inedible or unworthy. And even though innovations such as fish farming and flash freezing have rendered this layering of seafood consumption plastic, uncoupling species from the geographical area from which they come allowing poor and lower middle class people to consume more fish, the cultural perception of certain seafood as being "upper class" or even too good for lower class consumption persists. Even if a form of seafood is affordable to the lower classes (perhaps a sale before it goes bad- the traditional way that the lower classes have partaken of the most coveted products), it is still seen as consuming outside of their class boundaries.

But there is another part of this story. I started this post by pointing to a previous entry where I urged people to consider consuming the less-coveted fishes instead of the most highly coveted. The price of the most in demand has risen even higher recently as those fish stocks are destroyed by over consumption. I asked, why can't we start a campaign to get more people to eat catfish instead of salmon? Sounds good, right? But I'm rethinking my proposed plan after a recent twitter/blog conversation about "food gentrification."

The term "food gentrification" was coined in January of this year by Mikki Kendall, a blogger who writes about black feminist issues. Kendall points to a recent trend of upper class white consumers co opting or adopting traditionally lower class staples as the new "it" food. Soleil Ho at Bitch Magazine picked up Kendall's commentary and applied it to Whole Foods' new "Collards are the new Kale" campaign. Collard greens are a traditional poor Southern black food- a product deemed undesirable by upper classes that is a good source of fiber, protein, and vitamins for the lower classes.  According to Ho's followup post, the cost of this gentrification is exactly what Kendall hypothesizes- lower class families become priced out of their traditional food stuffs due to competition for higher class consumption.

The combination of Kendall and Ho's posts (and this newest post by Pilar Guevara about coconut in Ecuador) with the clip from the Daily Show I posted above have gotten me thinking about food gentrification and seafood consumption. In many ways, the rise of refrigeration allowed the gentrification of seafood. While there was and is always class involved in seafood consumption, the ability to ship certain desired species to markets drove up cost and priced locals out. No longer could lower classes get reduced price end-of-day products- the less desirable fish could just be frozen and package for the in-land consumer. 

Poor people have built cultures around less desirable species. And it's no surprise that these are the species that are not over fished or endangered. Smaller, lower class consider these sources of protein to be integral to their diet. Is it dangerous for me to push for a marketing shift to make these species seem desirable to the white upper classes? Would this cause another gentrification of fishes that could potentially lock out the lower classes from eating any seafood at all?

Add to this another concern, and one that should be highlighted: many communities that subsist on these undesirable species also seek to market them to the upper classes. The Southern catfish consuming community also produces catfish for the market. They would love to see higher consumption of their product in the United States, even if it priced out poor Southerners from their product (and they themselves are currently poor southerners). Is it paternalistic to want to block the gentrification of a fish like catfish, if it would possibly benefit communities of fish farmers throughout the South? Is it harsh to call the cooption of traditional lower class foods gentrification instead of success by local markets in selling a product?  How do we balance a knowledge of the destructive nature of food gentrification with the positive impact that this gentrification has on growing markets in these communities and the possible relief it might give to the stocks of overfished species?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on my concerns.

For more information on the #food gentrification, you can follow all the tweets about it here: 

For information on the history of seafood consumption and the culture of seafood consumption, here are a few papers I looked at before writing this blog: 

"Tales from Two Deltas: Catfish Fillets, High-Value Foods, and Globalization"
Dominique M. Duval-Diop and John R. Grimes Economic Geography, Vol. 81, No. 2 (Apr., 2005): 177-200.
- This article talks about the cultures in each area, and also the market competition between Vietnamese and Southern United States catfish farms. To read about the ongoing battle between American and Vietnamese catfish farmers for the lion's share of the American market, see the New York Times articles here, here, and here

"Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1930"
John K. Walton Journal of Social History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1989): 243-266.

"Eating the Claws of Eden: Stone Crabs, Tourism, and the Taste of Conservation in Florida and
Nicolaas Mink The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Spring, 2008): 470-497.
- This is an interesting article about the association of food with place. 

"Loaves and Fishes: Food in Poor Households in Late Nineteenth-Century London"
Anna Davin History Workshop Journal, No. 41 (Spring, 1996): 167-192.

"Between Life Giver and Leisure: Identity Negotiation through Seafood in Turkey"
StÃ¥le Knudsen International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Aug., 2006): 395-415.
- I loved this article. It is particularly interesting because it looks at two cultures of fish consumption right on top of each other: one higher class and one lower.

Finally, the book Caviar: The Strange history and uncertain future of the world's most coveted delicacy by Inga Saffron is very interesting and fun (a good beach read). Caviar is the example of the rise of a seafood delicacy and Saffron shares her adventures with caviar eating in Russia after the fall of the USSR (apparently there was a robust black market that allowed the lower classes to eat the stuff by the spoonfull). The author also talks about the consequences of the over consumption of this delicacy- the near extinction of the sturgeon species that produces it. good book.