We ate stewed clams and clam chowders and all manner of oysters: creamed oysters on toast, oysters in a chafing dish, broiled oysters on toast, oyster soups, oyster omelets and a rice-and-tomato-based concoction dubbed “a substantial oyster dish.”
When a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist perused a 1906 Seattle cookbook, most of the seafood recipes involved shellfish.
A century later, recipes had moved up the ocean food chain. One cookbook from 2003 contained 13 salmon recipes and only one recipe that called for clams.
By studying 120 years of Northwest seafood recipes, biologist Phil Levin stumbled on a pattern: He could follow our changing relationship with the sea by scouring what we eat.
“I think it tells us a lot about the social forces that may be driving current environmental problems,” Levin said.
Levin, who works at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, set about researching seafood history when trying to understand declines in rockfish species, three of which were protected last week under the Endangered Species Act. With so little data about the brightly colored bottom-fish, Levin thought cookbooks might offer insight. They did.
He and a partner collected 3,092 recipes from more than 100 cookbooks published in Oregon and Washington between 1885 and 2007. He found nary a rockfish recipe for most of those years.
In fact, 80 percent of the rockfish meals he found only showed up in cookbooks published after 1980 – about the same time Northwest fishermen really started targeting groundfish.
Before that, “they weren’t in the marketplace so there really weren’t any recipes,” Levin said.
Levin isn’t the first to attempt this type of research. A few years ago, world-renowned ecologist Stuart Pimm, a Duke University professor, found he could track global overfishing by comparing editions of “The Joy of Cooking.”
In his well-worn 1974 volume, Pimm found eight recipes for cod, four for haddock and 11 for herring. By the 1997 edition, haddock, cod and herring recipes were virtually absent – just as those species were in decline around the world.
Pimm and Levin are quick to note there are limits to the scientific conclusions that can be drawn. Recipes are influenced by economic and political pressures and cultural whimsy, and the sample sizes are quite small. But both said recipes and other cultural touchstones still shed light on the ways our ties to the oceans are changing.
“I love watching that show ‘The Deadliest Catch,’ ” Pimm said. “But if you think about it, going to the heart of the Bering Sea in the middle of winter to catch crab? It’s incredibly bloody stupid! But it shows how desperate we are to find fish ever farther afield.”