10 December 2009

Shark Fin, Foie Gras, and the Conscience of a Gourmand

A finned shark lies dying on the ocean floor
I was recently interviewed by Tiffany Ledner, a Boston University undergraduate, for a class project and story she wrote for The Daily Free Press, BU's student newspaper, called Shark Tails. (A longer version of the piece appears on the author's "Twenty-Four Hour Diner" blog, entitled Hook, Line and Sinker.) Her subject is shark fin as a foodstuff and finning, the notoriously unsustainable and horrific practice by which a shark is caught, has its fins cut off, and is then thrown back alive to die a terrible death on the ocean floor. Both the newspaper story and the blog piece did not reflect my feelings or actual statements with perfect accuracy, I imagine due to some combination of deadline pressure, changes made by some unseen editor, and space constraints.

As I conducted the interview by email, a practice I've adopted to help preserve my anonymity as a restaurant reviewer, it's easy for me to present my full responses to Ms. Ledner's interview questions here. In addition to clearing up some of the confusion that a few of my readers had expressed in the wake of the story's publication, I think it's a topic worthy of further thought and discussion, as it presents some queasy ethical questions to those of us for whom eating well is an obsessive pleasure.


Tiffany Ledner: Have you ever consumed or prepared shark fin soup or any other dish that requires shark fin as a main ingredient? If so, please explain where, when, the circumstances, cost of, preparation of, any other important details.

MC Slim JB: I have never eaten shark fin in the States, but have been served shark-fin soup in restaurants on several occasions at banquet-style business dinners in Hong Kong and mainland China (Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzen).

TL: Does shark fin have any sort of significance to you?

MCSJB: I understood that it was one of many luxury foods that were intended to demonstrate my hosts' benevolence toward me as an honored guest: a business partner who had traveled all the way from the USA to help them woo their customers, consummate deals, etc.

TL: How would you describe your position on environmental activism? Passionate, undecided, apathetic, etc?

MCSJB: I'd say I am supportive but not especially active. I donate to various environmental causes. I've read Schlosser and Pollan. I'm educating myself on sustainability issues, reading and promoting bloggers like Boston's Jacqueline Church. I carry the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list with me to avoid ordering seafood species that are caught or farmed in ways that harm other species or the environment. I buy local produce, meat and fish when I can. I'm planning to join a CSA and possibly a CSF next year. If I ever get the outdoor space, I will grow some of my own vegetables. But there's clearly a lot more I could be doing on this account.

TL: Did you enjoy shark fin? What did you take away from the experience? Would you sample it again?

MCSJB: It reminded me of many Chinese luxury foods: I didn't mind eating it, and it was more palatable than some costly foods I've been served over there, but I didn't find it wonderful. It's a dish that is mainly about texture, as it gets all its real flavor from the broth it's served in. But I think it's like a lot of luxury goods: the Veblen effect is in full force. That is to say, it's expensive mainly because it is rare, and it is valued primarily because it is expensive, enabling the diner / host to consume / entertain extravagantly in a conspicuous manner. If it were as cheap as pollock, people wouldn't get excited about it.

TL: What do you think about banning shark fins from dinner tables?

MCSJB: I am in favor of banning finned shark: finning seems an especially egregious example of unsustainable harvesting and animal cruelty.

TL: If shark fin soup becomes illegal, do you think a black market will develop for the delicacy?

MCSJB: Of course: this would be inevitable. But there is still value in making it illegal. Aside from the criminal and civil sanctions on finners and retailers (on which enforcement would be difficult), it would help increase the social stigma of consuming it. Of course, to certain diners, the fact that it is illicit and more expensive only heightens its appeal, but I think the net effect would be positive.

TL: Have you ever traveled to China? If so, what were your experiences there with shark fin soup, if any? Your experiences with Chinese cuisine?

MCSJB: I have traveled to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (and throughout Northeast and Southeast Asia) many times. I always eat like a local as much as possible there. At home in the States, I spend a lot of time in comparatively authentic Chinese restaurants of every type, primarily in Boston's Chinatown. But I still feel like a neophyte: the collection of rich, distinctive cuisines that we call Chinese food is something I feel I've just scratched the surface of. I really wish I could read Chinese, have considered studying it just to be able to decipher menus better.

TL: What are your experiences with bird’s nest soup or other delicacies taboo in mainstream American culture?

MCSJB: Is there really a taboo on bird's nest soup here, or do you mean that most Americans would find the idea of eating bird saliva disgusting? I've had that dish in China, too: not really a big deal, though I suspect it meant a lot to my hosts that I ate it and feigned relishing it (it is punishingly expensive). I've eaten many foods that would be considered Fear Factor foods by most Americans. (My favorite anecdote for this purpose is stag's penis soup, which really wasn't bad, a sort of gamy consomme.) I had a harder time with sea cucumber (highly prized, also unsustainably harvested, and with a texture I find unpleasant), a curry of many tiny fish-heads, sea snake (a bright-green scaly skin still on it), and other dishes.

TL: Many people are vehemently against the practice of shark finning because of how the fins are procured; however, some see no difference with this type of “torture” and the production of foie gras or veal. Do you eat foie gras or veal? Do you believe that this is unnecessary cruelty or a Darwinist advantage or something between the two? Please explain in detail.

MCSJB: I find the practice of finning abhorrent: it seems particularly cruel and wasteful as well as terribly unsustainable, threatening the extinction of many species. I eat only humanely-raised veal, which I believe is sustainable within the limits that meat-eating as a whole is. But I eat foie gras, and have no excuse for it. It's hard to see how you could justify its production as humane. (I guess I could defend it somewhat on sustainability grounds, but that argument seems feeble. The real issue is animal cruelty, and in that context you might argue that eating any CAFO-produced meat is equally reprehensible.) It's a fundamental hypocrisy I have about such foods, a stain on my conscience that I brook because I find the products so delectable.

TL: It has been stated that the wild capture of sharks merely for their fins is unsustainable. What do you feel about this? If sharks could be farmed, would it make a difference in how you feel about the production and/or consumption shark fin soup?

MCSJB: If it could actually be done sustainably (which is not true of all fish farming), the idea of farmed shark seems much better. It would be less wasteful (much more of the animal would be used), less cruel, and more defensible on sustainability grounds. It would not change my ambivalence about the product as a bland, unremarkable foodstuff.

TL: You are well known for frequenting Chinatown and have written about the importance of stepping out of one’s culture-Americana comfort zone and sampling cuisine from different cultures. Does your empathy towards other cultures have an effect on your opinion towards shark fin consumption? Please explain.

MCSJB: In general, I think eating traditional foods is one of the best ways to get inside the soul of a culture, and that greater experience of the world has many benefits to the individual. It certainly chips away at the tendency that we Americans have to see our culture as ascendant – an idea that many of us cherish who have never actually traveled anywhere to test the theory. I think developing that kind of empathy is more important now than ever, for a lot of reasons.

Having said that, the fact that I eat foie gras and some CAFO-produced meats means that I don't really have a leg to stand on in accusing other cultures of odious animal cruelty simply for the pursuit of pleasure. But I feel bad about it and ponder a day when I give it up for ethical reasons, and think that consumers of shark fin should, too.

TL: What changes would have to be made to the shark-finning industry for you to feel less guilty about eating shark fin soup (assuming it was something that you enjoy eating)?

MCSJB: If shark finning were successfully banned in favor of ways to sustainably catch or farm shark, I wouldn't object to its consumption, though I wouldn't go out of my way to eat shark fin myself.

TL: Finally, if foie gras were banned in the US, how would you react? Would you continue buy/consume it?

MCSJB: I'm not sure how I'd react to a foie gras ban. I suspect I would view it as I do certain other vices: I would mostly honor the proscription, but hold out the possibility that I might go off the reservation on select special occasions. As it is, I do not eat it very often, so making it forbidden might actually heighten its appeal in some ways. Consider absinthe: much less exciting now that it's widely available. Forbidden fruit shouldn't taste better just because it's forbidden, but sometimes it does.