Chef Barton Seaver wows with a beautiful seafood handbook

I had the opportunity to see Chef Barton Seaver speak in Maine a couple of years ago. I am always eager to ask chefs and other seafood fans about their rules for sourcing seafood. I asked him what advice he had for consumers who want to eat “sustainable” seafood. He replied: Eat what comes out of the ocean, not just the most marketable species.

American Seafood

American Seafood:
Heritage, Culture &
Cookery from Sea
to Shining Sea
By Barton Seaver
Sterling Epicure 2017
Hardcover; 519 pp.; $50

Seaver has long been a proponent of getting wild with seafood choices, but to get Americans to sign on to trying the weird and wild, he says you have to sell the narrative of the food. His Washington, D.C., restaurant Hook was committed to selling whatever its partnering commercial fishermen landed. One of his most popular dishes was built around the bait from an otherwise unsuccessful trip.

In “American Seafood,” Seaver explains the foundation for that model on page 1, glorying in the ocean's variety. “When we answer to such a dynamic system with a static mindset, we fail to understand the oceans and find nothing in common with its nature or the people and communities whose lives respond to the tides.” What we make of it, and take from it, is up to us.

The first 85 pages of this tome are dedicated to educating the reader about the rich history of American seafood and the fishing industry that has brought it to our tables for hundreds of years. Seaver covers the evolution of diverse fishing communities as they arose from the founding of the country and shifted after abolition, as well as the eternal discrepancies in our reverence for farmers and disdain for the salty fisherman, typically portrayed as gruff and uneducated. He describes methods of preservation, gear types, naming conventions, and yes, aquaculture.

(Though Seaver and I don’t always agree on the basic tenets of modern aquaculture, I do appreciate his description of its inherent limits: “Aquaculture should not be thought of as a replacement for wild fisheries… We must view it as complementary to the heritage and legacy of wild fisheries. It must be practiced in ways that are benign in their environmental impact, if not beneficial to the environment.”)

From there, he launches into encyclopedic entries of more than 500 species, listed alphabetically. I tend to think about fisheries and commercial species by region. However, this organization allows Seaver to describe, for example, every type of scallop found on our shores, from Maine to Alaska.

Each entry includes some history and biology; you’ll also find tips for sourcing, cooking, and distinguishing varieties of species from each other and from imposters, as well as the occasional recipe. This is the culmination of Seaver's seafood philosophy to enjoy the ocean's bounty.

BartonSeaver_American Seafood_HeavyBook_JH

American Seafood weighs a whopping 5 pounds.

But even if you never read a word, the images alone are worth the purchase price. The photos, reproductions of classic paintings and vintage fish marketing posters aid a natural progression of the storytelling. I recognized some classics from the National Fisherman collection — donated to and curated by the Penobscot Marine Museum — Maine bluefin tuna fisherman Ben Weiner and the infinitely talented Jay Fleming (whose own book was profiled in our September 2016 issue).

With a list price of $50, I have to say, this book is a steal. It’s less than 10 cents a page for a combination textbook, cookbook and coffee table book. And according to my kitchen scale, it can double as a 5-pound weight. If you pick it up a few times a day, consider your casual reading a calorie-burning experience.

Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

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