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January 18, 2007 10:51 AM   Subscribe

A vanishing world... in a bowl of chowder. An extraordinary article by New York Times writer Molly O'Neill about how changes in the recipe for New England's favorite soup reveal sea changes happening at sea. [Images here.]
posted by digaman (52 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Are you all just now noticing this? The Newfoundland fishery has been dead for a decade or more. If you overfish, the fish don't reproduce and they just don't come back. Too bad for Maine, but I have a tough time feeling bad for these guys. The writing has been on the wall for years - decades even. Regulators should have clamped down ages ago.
posted by GuyZero at 11:00 AM on January 18, 2007


No, I'm not just now noticing this, as my family vacationed on Cape Cod for over 40 years. Even more writing on the wall doesn't seem like a bad idea.
posted by digaman at 11:03 AM on January 18, 2007


Cod, haddock, white hake, halibut, cusk and dozens of other groundfish, fish that live near the ocean bottom, mingled with clams, shrimp, lobster and mussels under the creamy surface of the stew, cresting a puddle of yellow butter here, a slick of smoky pork fat there.

I've never had chowder like that.
posted by stbalbach at 11:14 AM on January 18, 2007


And you never will.
posted by anthill at 11:20 AM on January 18, 2007


It's pronounced chowda! Chowda! Come back, I'm not through humiliating you yet!
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:23 AM on January 18, 2007


That was a beautifully-written article. Thanks.

This echoes the collapse of the cod fishery off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the early 1990s. Thousands of fishermen in little villages along the south coast of Newfoundland, for example, had to go on the dole, unable to do what they and their fathers and their grandfathers had done...

The only people still working, when I visited and toured along the Newfie south coast in 1994, were the lobster guys. They went out in their little boats at dawn and all the cod fishermen -- most of the population in those villages -- stayed home, fixing their roofs and pouring concrete for community paths for want of anything better to do with themselves. Meanwhile, all the kids were leaving town. Pretty sad.

It's a funny thing, though -- despite the commercial fishing ban, the ocean still seemed to be teeming with fish. You could throw a line down with a shiny hook on the end and jig a cod in about 45 seconds. I can't imagine what it was like prior to European settlement, when the Grand Banks were so swarmed with groundfish that one must have felt one could walk on the water.
posted by killdevil at 11:23 AM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's stuff like this that keeps me loving the NYT. Permanent link.
posted by caddis at 11:28 AM on January 18, 2007


Great, and sad, story. I've long been interested in the connections between culinary practices and environmental conditions. After a generation of Americans eating whatever we want whenever we want, it'll be interesting to see how our declining natural resources will begin to alter our menus.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:41 AM on January 18, 2007


The fisherman are to blame. When I was growing up in Maine in the 80's, plenty of biologists working for the state government and at the universities were predicting a catastrophic crash in stocks and warned that commercial fishing needed regulation. The fishermen responded with some typical "you don't know what you're talking about, pointy-headed intellectuals! There's plenty of fish! Keep the government out of or business."

And the people of the state, who respect the fishermen as indigenous salt of the earth, wanted the industry left alone and it mostly was except for the size limits on lobster and a few other regulations. Well, the fishermen finally managed to kill the goose that laid the golden egg ad some of them still complain about the regulations that were implemented too late.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:42 AM on January 18, 2007


Regulators should have clamped down ages ago


commie!
posted by matteo at 11:48 AM on January 18, 2007


Too bad for Maine, but I have a tough time feeling bad for these guys. The writing has been on the wall for years - decades even. Regulators should have clamped down ages ago.

They did, at least in the case of Newfoundland. But the regulators can't do anything about the Portuguese coming in and taking what the Newfoundlanders have agreed to leave. Some fishermen told the government to go screw. But, y'know, as the years went on, more and more of them agreed to stop or severely cut the fishing. So, yes, blame the fishermen, Curley -- but by no means is it primarily the fault of the locals; by and large, they put forth some effort. Blame the fuckin' Europeans.
posted by solid-one-love at 11:49 AM on January 18, 2007


Rock Biter: They look like big...good... strong... hands... don't they?
posted by hermitosis at 11:53 AM on January 18, 2007


As a Rhode Islander, I hadn't noticed this at all. We've got our own style of chowder here. Nothing but quahogs, baby. I've never heard of putting fish in clam chowder.

Regardless, it's a shame.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 12:02 PM on January 18, 2007 [2 favorites]


At one point about a dozen or so years ago, the government (I don't recall if it was the State of Maine or the Feds...knowing Maine, I would guess the Feds) went so far as to buy up as much of the fishing fleet as they could convince the local fishermen to sell, just to get them off the water. Nothing else was going to stop them from fishing.

I remember very clearly coming out of breakfast in a little place in Portland's Old Port and being behind a group of Russian fisherman who had been brought to Maine by the government to try to sell them the boats before some other locals could buy them and put them back in the water.

The doughy Russian fishermen and their hard-faced wives were wandering around, looking with wonder and curiosity at the former "working waterfront", which turned into a tourist destination of overpriced shops, bars and restaurants thirty years ago.
posted by briank at 12:05 PM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


The fisheries may be depleted, but that's not the reason for "one note" chowder.

Restaurants are about a consistent product, and you don't get that with a random mishmash of fish.

For the homemade stuff, nobody wants to go out and buy and clean 16 different kinds of fish/shellfish to put in their chowders.

I made one back in October using blackfish and scallops, and that was plenty.
posted by dsquid at 12:16 PM on January 18, 2007



I've never had chowder like that.


Aside from the devastation of the industry, the other thing that pissed me off about this article was that the writer spends several paragraphs talking about how great, traditional chowder is made with layers of different types of fish, then they publish a recipe in the sidebar for fish chowder that contains ONE freakin fish! Most of these fish (including, cod, haddock, hake, monkfish, pollock, etc) are available in my fish market in NYC. How about a recipe for this lauded traditional multi-fish chowdah that's actually traditional?!?!

I guess I'll just have to bust out my Julia Childs.
posted by spicynuts at 12:18 PM on January 18, 2007


shit, dsquid, ya beat me to it!!
posted by spicynuts at 12:19 PM on January 18, 2007


What is taking place was noted in
Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (Paperback)

overfishing, regulations ignored, technology that made for grabbing huge amounts of fish readily, greed, appetites of consumers....but we are seeing this sort of thing with oil, and then next natural gas, as resources dwindle, populations rise, China and India etc grow and want cars, consumer goods, and pour pollution into the environment....and, did I mention, the not-soon-available Water, used to make lawns grow, clean cars, and useful in wet tee shirt contests?
posted by Postroad at 12:20 PM on January 18, 2007


Wait, no you didn't. I take that back...I am the guy who wants to go out and buy 16 types of fish. Then again, I'm also the guy that wants to make my own demi glace so maybe I'm not one to judge by.
posted by spicynuts at 12:21 PM on January 18, 2007


For the homemade stuff, nobody wants to go out and buy

...nobody but the millions of Provencal, Italian, Azorean, and Yankee home cooks who have been making delicious, complex chowders, bouillabaisse, and cioppino in various forms for centuries. And still do, when they can.
posted by digaman at 12:22 PM on January 18, 2007


So, yes, blame the fishermen, Curley -- but by no means is it primarily the fault of the locals; by and large, they put forth some effort. Blame the fuckin' Europeans.

You realize that the Maritimes didn't have size limits on lobster until a couple years ago, right? And the fishermen bitched about it. Europeans might be wrecking things in technically international waters, but the fishing industries in the US and Canada don't want regulation to save themselves, either.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:26 PM on January 18, 2007


Meanwhile, Portland gets its very own Freezer Ship.
posted by suki at 12:40 PM on January 18, 2007


I can't find it online (or anywhere else and would appreciate a reference), but I read an article several years ago claiming that in early colonial times there was a cod fishery associated with the Sargasso Sea in which 300 lb. fish were common, and which had a total biomas comparable to all the large animals of East Africa, but which was overfished to destruction and is now barely a memory.
posted by jamjam at 12:55 PM on January 18, 2007


Fascinating article. Thanks.
posted by blag at 12:55 PM on January 18, 2007


For what it's worth, most authorities that I could find on the subject back in the 90s blamed the failure of the Canadian cod fishery on giant European factory trawlers working further off the coast than the locals.

I seem to recall that there were even a few hostile incidents involving Canadian coastal patrol boats and the big foreign fishing ships -- nothing escalating to gunfire, but some stand-off situations.
posted by killdevil at 1:52 PM on January 18, 2007


There’s plenty of blame to go around for depleted fish stocks. Most fish that are caught in the waters off North America begin their lives in estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay or Puget Sound, and these have been steadily degraded in modern times by a host of human factors ranging from agricultural and industrial pollution to sport boating.
posted by Huplescat at 1:59 PM on January 18, 2007


The previously discussed Sea Shepherd Society did a few numbers on offshore Grand Banks fishers, killdevil.They're still involved.
posted by anthill at 2:12 PM on January 18, 2007


Now I'm hungry.
posted by nyxxxx at 2:20 PM on January 18, 2007


...nobody but the millions of Provencal, Italian, Azorean, and Yankee home cooks who have been making delicious, complex chowders, bouillabaisse, and cioppino in various forms for centuries. And still do, when they can.

For those 14 people, I offer my apologies.

The rest of the chowder public making works with 1 or 2 varieties of seafood.

If they're TOTALLY up for "Chowda Gone Wild!!!" (or have leftovers they gotta get rid of), 3.

I mean, seriously. Lets get real here.
posted by dsquid at 2:36 PM on January 18, 2007


yay! my neighbor took the photos for the article...
posted by machaus at 2:49 PM on January 18, 2007


cacciucco is still made of, like, at least eight or then kinds of fish. if you love fish and have never tasted it, you've missed on something awesome
posted by matteo at 2:49 PM on January 18, 2007


cacciucco
posted by matteo at 2:50 PM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Mmm, I don't usually like Emeril's recipes or trip, matteo, but that looks like a great recipe. I'll have to make it sometime.

I love a good fish stew, and the incorporation of many different species in these dishes is not just some foofy pretense -- some kinds of fish fall apart and thicken the sauce, while others retain their integrity, and every kind of shellfish adds its own distinctive sweetness or "oceanic" flavor.

enjoy your fishwiches, dsquid. I know, I know, you're busy posting on MetaFilter rather doing all that schlepping, cleaning, and cooking. So much work!
posted by digaman at 3:25 PM on January 18, 2007


I take that back, dsquid, because I just read your website (these intarnets turn out to be a good thing), and I can see that you love to cook. So do I. You seem to have more affection for "conveniences" like canned clam juice and canned soup than I do, but nonetheless, I can see that you're serious about your food and I wish you well. If you ever make it to SF, I'll make you and yours a real cioppino.
posted by digaman at 3:32 PM on January 18, 2007 [1 favorite]


Don't worry. We can always grow and eat nutritious algae.
posted by Sukiari at 4:01 PM on January 18, 2007


Spirulina chowder is people.
posted by digaman at 4:15 PM on January 18, 2007


Yay, digaman! Where you been?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:51 PM on January 18, 2007


The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat (2006) by Charles Clover addresses these issues in great detail. A Mefite recommended it in another thread some time ago (can't find it now) - thanks, whoever you are. I finished it last week and have been raving about it to everyone I know.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 4:59 PM on January 18, 2007


Heh, hey stavros. Thanks for the welcome. Hopefully you will see where I have been this Tuesday (cryptic comment).
posted by digaman at 5:09 PM on January 18, 2007


I found the piece's poetic journalism to be a bit cloying, myself, but the material was good.

For what it's worth, most authorities that I could find on the subject back in the 90s blamed the failure of the Canadian cod fishery on giant European factory trawlers working further off the coast than the locals.

Well, it's like this. Most coastal nations have fish stocks that largely live within their 200NM protected zone. Canada's Grand Banks extend further than 200, but since no one else's does, they've never been able to get other nations to go along with extending that range. It's not in anyone else's interests to do so.
posted by dreamsign at 7:33 PM on January 18, 2007


Yes, cloying. Annoying, actually. Maybe even insulting: As someone who pronounces it "chowdah," I was nauseated by O'Neill's phonetic cutseyness (where the hell were the famously staid NYT copyeditors?). I realize she was trying to make the point that these men are a dying breed, but constantly pointing out the oh-so-precious way they speak and how these big, burly men wield dainty spatulas, it diminished them.

Bad writing. Period.
posted by turducken at 8:18 PM on January 18, 2007


The famously staid NYT copyeditors were probably doing their job: editing errors, not dictating style. Chacun 224; son go251;t.
posted by digaman at 8:38 PM on January 18, 2007


Oh well, it worked in preview.
posted by digaman at 8:38 PM on January 18, 2007


Mmm... I've always enjoyed a good bowl of clam chowder. If it has fish, isn't it a "seafood bisque"?
posted by MajorDilemma at 8:43 PM on January 18, 2007


Every two years, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Association publishes their report, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA). Some charts and tables from the 2004 edition:If there's any hope, Figure 23 illustrates that fish represents less than 10% of consumed proteins.

Guess which country catches and eats the most fish? Compared to future competition for food, water, and oil, terrorism is the least of our problems.
posted by cenoxo at 9:30 PM on January 18, 2007


I can see that you're serious about your food and I wish you well. If you ever make it to SF, I'll make you and yours a real cioppino.

I appreciate the offer (and the followup)...who knows, maybe someday... :)

Yes, out of convenience I will use canned stocks from time to time. I've made my own fish and chicken stock before, but as someone with a long commute on top of full work days, I have to cut some corners for the sake of stamina. :)

Anyway, I'm aware that there are good recipes out there for multi-animal chowders but the vast majority of cooks will simplify unless they're driven by tradition or curiosity.
posted by dsquid at 9:36 PM on January 18, 2007


This is not a bad article, but the same story was told more elegantly, with more detail, by Alec Wilkinson last summer in The New Yorker. Can't find it online except for this interview about the article, but it's the July 31, 2006 issue.

An even better version of the same story is told in an excellent book called The Secret Life of Lobsters, which I quoted often last summer while leading tours through the small islands where the book is set. (I live about a mile from the Maine Sea Coast Mission mentioned in the Times article.)

I'm not a classic Mainer — only lived there 20+ years, and I make chowder using a can — but the late great Maine writer John Gould (1908—2003) always said that no matter how you make it, chowder should always be stirred clockwise. (The one time I ate at his house, it was for a 4th of July breakfast, so chowder wasn't on the menu.)
posted by LeLiLo at 2:26 AM on January 19, 2007


In the first chapter of Colin Woodward's 'The Lobster Coast' he recounts how lobstermen on Monhegan Island have "self-regulated" their fishing waters for over a century -- effectively creating the Monhegan Island Conservation Zone.

In the late 1990's lobstermen from the mainland, having overfished their traditional zones, started to encroach on the "informal territorial" waters which Monhegan lobstermen had always fished -- activity which was/is legal. However, the islanders considered that the "laws of fishermen" had been broken and skirmishes soon broke out -- cutting of trap lines, damage to rival boats, etc. The Department of Maine Resources tried to mediate, but to no avail.

In the winter (the traditional fishing season for Monhegan) of 1997 the lobstermen didn't set their traps. Instead they and their families went to Augusta and lobbied the state legislature to pass a law that effectively closed Monhegan's grounds to nonislanders. The law passed by a significant margin: 29 to 1 in the Senate and 132 to 14 in the House -- thus insuring that the Monhegan Island Conservation Zone could be maintained and not overfished.
posted by ericb at 3:28 PM on January 19, 2007


How about a recipe for this lauded traditional multi-fish chowdah that's actually traditional?!?! I guess I'll just have to bust out my Julia Childs.

Let me suggest Jasper White's 50 Chowders: One Pot Meals - Clam, Corn, & Beyond.

Check him out -- from Julia Child's Lessons with Master Chefs.
posted by ericb at 3:44 PM on January 19, 2007


Correct link for '50 Chowders: One Pot Meals - Clam, Corn, & Beyond.'
posted by ericb at 3:46 PM on January 19, 2007


so chowder wasn't on the menu

Bull. Chowder is always on the menu. Especially for breakfast.
It's good cold too. Like pizza!
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 4:32 PM on January 19, 2007


Bull. Chowder is always on the menu. Especially for breakfast.

O.K. I should have said it wasn't on the table. Or maybe it was; I’m not too observant before noon. I’m not that big on breakfasts, really — all I remember about the food, citrusfreak12, (seriously) was drinking orange juice.
posted by LeLiLo at 2:25 AM on January 20, 2007


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