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Q & A with Barton Seaver

Barton Seaver, author of For Cod and for Country; spoke Wednesday in Love Auditorium.
Barton Seaver, author of For Cod and for Country; spoke Wednesday in Love Auditorium.

An avid supporter of sustainable seafood practices, chef Barton Seaver discussed the importance of preserving the ocean’s natural resources in a talk Wednesday in Duke University’s Love Auditorium. After a book signing and question-and-answer session, professional chefs in the Triangle area hosted a “food fair” for attendees to sample dishes made with fresh, sustainable ingredients. A National Geographic fellow, Seaver wrote his first cookbook “For Cod and Country” in May 2011. The Chronicle’s Shucao Mo spoke with Seaver about seafood sustainability and culinary practices.

The Chronicle: When did you decide to pursue a career as a chef dedicated to seafood sustainability?

Barton Seaver: I had always been fluent in food. It was an important part of my upbringing. [After I started my career,] I used food to create a series of relationships that became always more important than the ingredients themselves I was using. I realized that as a chef, I have the power to extend that relationship throughout the entire supply chain. That ability led me to pursue sustainable seafood. It afforded [me] the opportunity to use my skill as a chef to bring about a larger change.

TC: How did you decide upon on promoting this particular environmental issue—the ocean?

BS: Seafood is the very last wild food we eat in great quantity. The global politics of seafood is more complicated than those of agriculture. We are dealing with incredibly well-founded infrastructure that demands commodity products, which makes the potential consequences more radical and detrimental.

TC: What inspired you to write “For Cod and Country” earlier this year?

BS: I wrote “For Cod and Country” to teach Americans to eat less seafood and to help them understand how to restore their own health through eating well and responsibly. Seafood is a necessary, vital, delicious and incredibly healthy part of our diets. Fishing and fishing communities are a vital and necessary cultural link to our founding principles and to our shared cultural history. We all have a role to play in restoration. Furthermore, the book encourages corporate interest to adopt some of those principles of sustainability and restorative responsibility.

TC: What would you say to those who see your way of protecting the ecosystems as a futile or too costly attempt?

BS: A lot of unsustainable seafood is unsustainable because it is in high demand. Their rarity has been driven up, and so has their price. Sustainable food doesn’t fall victim to a lack of efficiency. In fact, the more sustainable option is generally cheaper because people haven’t wanted them traditionally.

TC: Have you considered the danger of sustainable food promotion, that it may turn sustainable products into unsustainable ones?

BS: Absolutely. It puts a greater demand and burden on the sustainability of the product itself. But, the narrative of sustainability is not just about the greenness. The purpose is... to make everything sustainable. The message of diversification and of regional and seasonal seafood consumption—all of that is part of the sustainable ideology. What we are doing is creating sustainable market demand, which must co-evolve with sustainable management policies.

TC: What was your first encounter with the environmental community?

BS: In 2005, I hosted Charles Clover in my restaurant for his “The End of the Line” book signing and talk. That opportunity made me realize that the very seafood I was serving—[what] I relied on for profitability—was disappearing and in jeopardy, but [more importantly,] that we had an opportunity to solve this. Over-fishing is probably the greatest threat to our world that we know how to solve. We just need the political and consumer will to do it. Charles inspired me to carry forth that message, not only ideologically, but also in my everyday life.

TC: What was the most memorable experience you had while learning about sustainable seafood practices?

BS: I had an amazing encounter with ages-old fish salmon in Tacon River in wild and pristine Canada. Using wheel-fishing, I pulled this giant 25-pound king salmon that had never touched hook [before]. The vitality, strength, endurance and patience that were evident [in the fish] was an eye-opening experience for me. It was a humbling experience that led me to understand that fish—and all living things on earth—really have two purposes. One is to live, and the other to die or to be eaten. We need to save fish for the fishes’ sake, so [that] they have values swimming in the ocean, not just lying and resting on our plates as seafood.

TC:How is the way we prepare for dinner related to conservation?

BS: Food introduces the ritual of eating, the very important behavior characteristic of sustainability. The way I cook is firstly, to incorporate a lot of vegetables, and secondly, to incorporate reasonable, adequate, enjoyable, appropriate, responsible sizes of proteins. Diversity is an entertainment tactic [that enlivens and engages] people, [making] them want to come back [for more]. [I am] giving them a gift, and [the sense of] hospitality and generosity is inherent [in that act]. That’s a good way for people to absorb information [about sustainable food].

TC: How would you envision a society that is appropriately concerned about health, community and the environment?

BS: It will be an amalgam of multinational corporate interest with a lot of commodity crops, as well as small-scale regional and environmentally diverse traditional farms.

TC: What recipe would you recommend to the Duke community as a way of supporting the ocean system in North Carolina?

BS: Allow yourself to walk into the market and find what’s fresh, local and seasonal. If you are willing to diversify your own demand, the ecosystem will operate more functionally.

TC: What can college students do to promote sustainable food?

BS: Eat more vegetables. Incubate the act of dinner into your lives—not to forget the fundamental human values that surround feeding ourselves. Eat together and remember our communion—that is, our quest for food. Remind ourselves the joy and the bounty of our natural world.

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