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Flash in the Pan

So long to all the fish

More than 100 nations, including the United States and China, have publicly agreed with the recent report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which aims for a 60-percent cut in greenhouse emissions by 2050. If everyone holds to this agreement and emissions decrease dramatically, we still might not be in time to save the glaciers from melting. Meanwhile, these reductions will require lifestyle changes that threaten the survival of another icon of our age, the extinction of which will have more impact on my life than the end of glaciers.

It doesn’t sound so valiant to hear me say it, but the truth is, as much as I’ll miss the glaciers, I won’t miss them half as much as I’ll miss sushi.

That’s right. Bye-bye sushi. Maybe you haven’t connected the dots, but the writing is on the wall. Sushi stands in the way of meeting greenhouse gas emissions standards.

The other day I ate a quivering piece of geoduck clam at Nara, my favorite endangered-sushi joint. The clams are shipped alive from Japan, the chef explained. He said that after the edible part, a long meaty siphon, is removed, the muscle lives on for hours, even days.

There is something thrilling about eating a live thing. Perhaps it’s a dark thrill, or perhaps our bodies can sense the raw potency of living foods. The flavor of that clam was subtle and spectacular.

Indeed, Japanese cuisine is one of the world’s loftiest culinary apexes, a high point in artistic expression.

But the processes of providing the spectacular experience of sushi in places so far from the ocean are incompatible with many current environmental paradigms, not the least of which is the prevention of global warming.

The New Scientist recently reported that True World Foods, which supplies the lion’s share of sushi-grade fish and seafood to U.S. restaurants, buys much of its fish from Kyokuyo, a Japanese company that also sells whale meat. Thus, many of your sushi dollars go to whale killers.

Beyond that, nearly every item on the menu has its own sordid secret. The salmon and yellowtail were farmed, a practice that threatens marine ecosystems. The wild fish were caught by an industry whose immense nets and relentless harvests are also threatening the integrity of ocean ecosystems. My geoduck clam was imported from Japan, even though they grow very well on the coast of Washington. Much of the tuna was airlifted by chopper directly from fishing boats in the middle of the ocean to market, whence it is express-shipped, refrigerated, all over the world.

This kind of jet-setting won’t help us meet our greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, and it’s a big reason why sushi is one of the most environmentally destructive things we can eat.

Bye-bye sushi, I’m really going to miss you. I’m not quite man enough to say I’ve had my last bite, but I am phasing out. Because if we are really going to do something about global warming, we’re all going to have to start feeling a little pain. Right now the choice is voluntary. Soon it might be less so—if for no other reason than rising fuel prices and environmental regulations will make sushi too expensive to be profitable.

Of course sushi probably won’t go completely extinct. In a carbon-emission-friendly world, sushi would revert back to its historic range, mostly in the Asia/Pacific region. Someday, maybe, we’ll be able to fly there in hybrid airplanes and sample local, sustainably harvested sushi, but for the time being we’ll have to put down the chopsticks, step away from the sushi bar, and shift focus back to our home ground, where we have plenty of raw and living foods.

While for legal reasons I’m not going to tell you to eat raw venison, I will say that when I’m butchering a fresh kill, a few pieces inevitably end up in my mouth—but not as many as disappear from a bowl of chunks in a tangy marinade. Elk tartar, anyone?

Or, consider my crop of garlic from last year, currently sprouting in the unheated garage where it overwintered. Garlic may not go down as smooth and creamy as a raw oyster, but its cells are alive and vital, full of fresh enzymes, vitamins and other biomolecules. And now, after all these months, my garlic cloves are sending out bright green shoots ready for more life. I pickled a bunch of them last night, along with dried red chili peppers. I put a splash of olive oil in the jars, which pools on the surface of the vinegar so that when you pull a clove from the jar by its green shoot, the clove gets coated in oil.

I don’t want to brag, but this is the kind of explorational culinary creativity that we need here at home if we are ever going to create a local, place-based cuisine as aesthetically advanced as Japanese food. With our own set of ingredients, we need to create a culinary tradition that sings the flavors of our home ground. It beats going extinct ourselves.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Yo soy

Q: Dear Chef Boy Ari,

I very much appreciated your recent article on soy. I was especially interested in reading about how the isoflavanoids in soy can act like estrogen.

I’ve known for a long time that soy gives me hot flashes, but it wasn’t until I read about the link between soy and estrogen that I realized these hot flashes might be the result of hormonal reactions triggered by soy. Then, just the other day, I ate a spoonful of peanut butter and I got a hot flash. I thought “what the…” and I looked on the peanut butter label and sure enough, there was soy oil in it. Soy is in everything these days. Why is there soy in cocktail sauce? And it’s not only in the food, but it’s in the box the food comes in, the glue on the box, and the ink on the box. We’re surrounded by soy, and we don’t understand all of the medical consequences.

In Asia, soy is processed differently, and maybe that’s why they seem to get away with eating so much. But here, it’s the soy industry that’s driving the use of soy, and they’ll put it in anything they can.

—Steering Clear

A: Dear Steering Clear,

For a more in-depth discussion of how soy and corn, America’s two biggest (legal) cash crops, have infiltrated most of the nation’s food supply, check out Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

I think it’s particularly amazing how successful some soy-boosters have been at injecting soy into the so-called health foods market. While there certainly are some healthy ways that soy can be processed and eaten, much of the soy that’s dumped into our food system isn’t.

If anyone else out there has some soy stories or concerns, let’s hear them!

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