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Spring and the Nature of Eating

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Yellow Perch & Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear," 

Ink & watercolor, Gary Allen, 1989



Trout season is now in its most glorious phase, that time known as "the sweet of the year." It's that blissful time when the season is at its showiest, the air is soft, the streams have cleared, and the trout are rising freely in a most pleasing manner. Which is not to say that they are easily caught -- they are still trout, after all.

So why, over that paean of piscatorial prose, is this scrawl illustrated with a lowly Yellow Perch?

Trout and Yellow Perch tell us something about the way we choose to feed ourselves. Some fishermen (at least those who do not adhere strictly to the canon of catch-and-release) will occasionally consume trout and bass, but eschew “lesser” species such as Bluegills or Yellow Perch. These easily-caught fish actually taste better than the more prestigious species (that's why they are known collectively as "pan fish"). So why would someone prefer a food with poorer culinary properties that is harder to come by?

Those choosy fishermen demonstrate an important aspect of eating: the food itself is only a small part of the eating experience. What we choose to eat is determined by factors that are often at odds with our best interest. We place greater value on the symbolic aspects of foods than on their intrinsic properties.

Why would people (in the past) have preferred white bread to the "lowlier" peasant breads that were cheaper, tastier, and more nutritious? White flour was more labor-intensive, so only the wealthy could afford it -- therefore eaters of white bread were visibly part of a higher-status group than eaters of dark breads. Eventually, industrially produced white flour became cheap, available to everyone—consequently, losing status. Whole grain breads -- made, supposedly, by more artisanal methods -- gained a newly enhanced status. That status, in turn led people to believe that such breads were "more healthful." Being sufficiently well-off to choose "health" over mere sustenance implied higher status, so dark breads regained their lost status.

Since trout and bass require more effort (read: more leisure time) to catch than plebian pan fish, they likewise confer higher status on those who choose to eat them. Yellow Perch, on the other hand, are so willing to be caught that even a small child, equipped with only the simplest gear and most rudimentary skills, can easily catch enough to feed their whole family.

Despite the pretentions of fishers of elite species, what they demonstrate is not connoisseurship, but rather the brute power of supply-and-demand.

At one time lobsters and caviar were so abundant that only servants and slaves had to eat them. The poor were pitied for having to endure the monotony of such mundane fare. When my mother was growing up, on the Connecticut shore, mussels were abundant -- but only poor Italian immigrants collected them. Her Yankee family considered mussels to be trash, and would never touch them. Even during The Great Depression, they chose to eat the tougher (and harder-to-collect) clams. I doubt that they had ever tasted the sweet and tender mussels that were everywhere for the taking.

Why would people shun perfectly-delicious food in favor of something more difficult to obtain, yet not nearly as tasty? Because their self-image is more important, and presumably longer-lasting, than the actual quality of their evanescent dining experiences. Or, to paraphrase Brillat-Savarin, bluntly, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you think you are."

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