AT FIRST IT sounds like a goofy home-ec project. Phillip Levin and Aaron Dufault, two biologists working at the federal Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, scoured 58 local libraries in search of Northwest seafood recipes. They found 3,092 recipes in 105 cookbooks published in Washington and Oregon between 1885 and 2006. But they weren’t looking for new ways to sauce sockeye or spice shrimp. They were asking an important question about seafood sustainability.
Conventional economic wisdom says that as big fish at the top of the food chain (such as halibut and bluefin tuna) get scarcer and costlier, consumers should switch to cheaper choices. And recipes should reflect that trend. But the cookbooks tell a different story. Salmon, for example, which used to be cheap bulk protein, is now scarcer in local waters but just as common in local cookbooks. Shellfish, which once occupied three—quarters of the recipes, have fallen to less than half, even though they feed near the bottom of the foodweb and are still abundant. Shad, herring, sardines, and other low-on-the-web fish have nearly vanished from the books. Levin and Dufault found that with the exception of temporary dips in distressed decades like the 1930s and 1980s, the number of recipes for fish high on the food chain has risen steadily since the late 1800s. The reason, explains Levin, is that cookbooks aren’t just manuals; they’re aspirational expressions—“reflections of what we wish reality was.” As a species declines, its “value as a status symbol increases,” consumers spend more for it, and it gets depleted faster. Cookbooks reinforce this trend.
But Levin discovered one consolation on the cookbook shelf: “We did not find a single recipe for whale.”