TREVOR CORSON • THOUGHTS
$400,000 for a Fish?

What’s with the $400,000 bluefin tuna that just sold at a new year’s auction in Tokyo? Nothing. This recurring headline of extravagantly priced tuna is one of those news items that leaves you with less knowledge than you had before you heard about it. That’s because the only reason any bidder at the Tokyo auction ever pays that much for a fish is to deliberately spend way more than any sane person should. Blowing that much on a tuna is either a celebration of recent profits, or a bid for publicity to boost a restaurant or distributor’s profile. In short, it’s money spent on advertising, not on fish. And clearly, while very expensive, it’s a technique that works.

Which is not to dismiss the larger, very real, and very sad trend of generally increasing prices for bluefin tuna due to their growing scarcity. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before the global sushi industry wipes these majestic fish off the face of the earth.

Which is doubly sad, because it’s completely unnecessary. As I’ve written in The New York TimesThe Atlantic, on Yahoo/CSM, and elsewhere, bluefin tuna aren’t even a traditional Japanese sushi fish.

Photo: Kyodo via AP Images

Feeling “Manly”?

In case you sushi lovers haven’t had enough of my posts on nigiri topped with flounder testicle, here’s the latest high-end food fad in that category: sipping cod semen.

Apparently no one has told these people that we’re trying to bring back the cod population. I don’t think slurping down all the spermatozoa is going to help. Where is our faith in the future of the seas?

I know, if the fish has already been caught, there’s no point in letting the semen go to waste. So, for those who imbibe it, please do your part to replenish the ocean by finding a coddish mermaid to mate with. “Splash” for the twenty-first century.

Photo: Cod milt, from Serious Eats.

Food for Thought

If there’s one thing I learned while researching and writing The Story of Sushi, it’s that the history of sushi has been one of surprisingly constant change and evolution, both in Japan and internationally. The book’s subtitle isn’t “An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice” for nothing.

The other day I had the honor of hosting a sold-out panel discussion at the Museum of the City of New York on the evolution of sushi with two talked-about young sushi chefs in the region: Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven (above right) and Hiroji Sawatari, an alumnus of the legendary New York sushi house Yasuda and future chef at the anticipated new SoHo eatery Niko, slated to open this fall (left). These two sushi chefs couldn’t have been more different.

Though relatively young, Hiroji is of the seriously old-school variety of sushi slinger. He began his apprenticeship in Japan at age 16 and brought his sushi-making skills to the U.S. at 21, where he spent four years at the highly-regarded Hatsuhana before returning to the very heart of the Japanese sushi world — the enormous Tsukiji Fish market in Tokyo — to hone his skills further for a year at Sushi-Iwa, a half-century-old shop located just steps away from the world’s clearinghouse for the freshest fish. Back in New York he worked his way up through chef positions at Sharaku and Megu in TriBeCa to a four-year stint at Sushi Yasuda. Last year he joined Food Network star Iron Chef Morimoto at his flagship Japanese eatery in Philadelphia.

Bun, meanwhile, is altogether different. The son of a Chinese father and Japanese mother, he lived in Japan as a boy, watching his Japanese grandmother pickle plums and cucumbers and prepare traditional Japanese fare including fresh fish. But the family moved to Connecticut, where Bun’s mother opened Miya’s in 1982, the first sushi bar in the area, and Bun grew up mostly Americanized. Bun’s mother still oversees the restaurant, but today Bun is the mastermind of its new incarnation, and his charismatic and unconventional approach to sushi, its ingredients, and its presentation has quickly transformed Miya’s into one of the most talked-about sushi restaurants around.

Bun conceives of his work at Miya’s as the logical progression of sushi as it inevitably evolves into food that is cross-cultural, and while his menu is unconventional, his lively interactions with customers also revive the traditional relationship between a sushi chef and his clientele. Bun considers himself both a social and environmental activist, and has transformed Miya’s into the first sushi restaurant on the East Coast to integrate sustainability criteria for the seafood it serves. (Bun is also the 2010 recipient of Key to the City of New Haven for his contributions to the community.)

A few days later I had the chance to visit Bun at Miya’s for dinner. Here we are, pictured above, as he studiously reads what he claims is one of his favorite books, The Secret Life of Lobsters — which was sitting on the sushi bar, with many other books, when I arrived. An example of Bun’s activist menu: we ate these tiny fried crabs, which he features because they are not just yummy, but a pesky invasive species. Now there’s a meal you can feel good about.

If You’re Looking for Crustacean Porn

Then look no further than the new “Summer Issue” of New York magazine, which describes a lobster-sex-tape viewing session with yours truly. If you find that the least bit interesting, you’re probably a prime candidate for putting The Secret Life of Lobsters on your summer reading list. Here’s what the Associated Press had to say:

In passages befitting a beach scene in a steamy romance novel, Corson writes about the rough-and-tumble affair [of lobster mating]. … Who would have thought lobsters were such passionate lovers?

And here’s a sampling from the article in New York:

Lunch is winding down at Pearl Oyster Bar, and Trevor Corson, the Brooklyn-based author of the definitive pop-lobster book, The Secret Life of Lobsters, sets a MacBook on our table and cues up a video. Corson, 40, worked as a sternman on a Maine lobster boat for two years. Today, he has come to the West Village to talk lobsters and play me an unusual sex tape, featuring rare footage captured by a German documentary team. …

Owner Rebecca Charles comes out of the kitchen in chef’s whites, and Corson nods at his laptop: “Lobster porn. Want to see it?”

"Lobster porn?" Charles says, as she settles in for a viewing. "Nasty."

"If it weren’t for all these lobsters having all this sex," Corson says, in a game attempt to justify our gratuitous viewing, "we wouldn’t be having all these lobster rolls in New York."

Sustainable Sushi Strains Couples in Therapy

In case you missed this from an article in the New York Times the other day titled “Therapists Report Increase in Green Disputes”:

Mr. Fleming, who says he became committed to Ms. Cobb “before her high-priestess phase,” describes their conflicts as good-natured — mostly. But he refuses to go out to eat sushi with her anymore, he said, because he cannot stand to hear her quiz the waiters.
“None of it is sustainable or local,” he said, “and I am not eating cod or rockfish.”
As awareness of environmental concerns has grown, therapists say they are seeing a rise in bickering between couples and family members over the extent to which they should change their lives to save the planet.
If Atlantic bluefin tuna becomes an endangered species, that’s big news. That will wake a lot of people up.

Trevor Corson

There I go, quoting myself again, this time from an AP article that’s been running on ABC News and numerous other outlets: “Sushi-Loving Japan Fears Push for Tuna Export Ban.”

This is a difficult issue, because popular opinion in Japan seems to interpret efforts to limit bluefin fishing as an attack by the West on Japanese culture. (Ditto for whaling.)

I feel that’s an interpretation that’s been pushed by Japanese business interests that have a stake in the bluefin trade, which is unfortunate.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Japanese culture, and I always point out that bluefin tuna isn’t really a traditional sushi ingredient at all. Go back a few decades and the authentic sushi culture of Japan actually valued other, smaller fish like breams, flounders, jacks, and mackerel.

But of course, in Japan I’m just a gaijin—an outsider. Never mind that I learned what I know about sushi from reading Japanese books in Japanese.

Lobster Side Dish: Bricks, or Oysters?

Bricks are not delicious. Oysters are delicious. Both are heavy.

Heaviness is what you need for a lobster trap to sink to the bottom of the sea and stay there. When I worked as a lobsterboat crewman in Maine, numerous winter days were spent outfitting new traps with heavy bricks.

But the lobstermen pictured above, who are part of a pilot study in Massachusetts, are trying something different. Instead of heavy bricks, they are outfitting this lobster trap with baskets to hold heavy oysters, which will grow bigger while their weight also helps keep the trap sitting on the bottom. Later, the lobstermen can harvest and sell the big oysters they’ve grown, along with the lobsters they’ve been catching.

This seems a clever melding of wild harvesting and aquaculture, using a single piece of equipment. Will it catch on? It partly depends how well the lobsters and the oysters get along in the trap; initial reports are that the lobsters are a little less inclined to walk inside.

But oysters do sound like an easier sell for a tasty side dish than bricks. Unless stone soup makes a comeback.

Read the report. Photo: Joseph K. Buttner

The Ultimate in Sustainable Sushi Might Just Be … Chicken

In The Story of Sushi I write about one of the first female sushi chefs to graduate from the California Sushi Academy—Tracy Griffith, actress, singer, and half-sister of Melanie Griffith. Here’s the beginning of the section about Tracy in the book:

A feisty redhead, Tracy had gotten to the point in her film career where she no longer wanted to wear the things the directors wanted her to wear, or say the things they wanted her to say. She saw an ad in Gourmet magazine for the sushi academy and signed up.
Within five minutes of Tracy’s arrival, the Japanese instructor started yelling at her.
‘You should not be here!’ he screamed. He glared at her fingernail polish and her long red hair. ‘You unnatural! No such thing sushi woman!’
He spent the rest of the class trying to intimidate Tracy into quitting. When she returned for the next class he was irate.
‘What did I say?!’ he screamed. ‘What are doing here? You should not be here!’

A big part of the story in my book is about the challenges faced by women in the world of sushi. When I interviewed Tracy about her experiences she looked back on it all with grace and humor, but it hadn’t been easy. She had managed to graduate from the Academy, though, and later worked as a sushi chef and even published a cookbook called Sushi American Style.

Tracy was here in New York yesterday promoting her new line of American-style sushi rolls, carried by Dean & Deluca.

We shared a laugh over the fact that her sushi might be the ultimate in sustainability—at least from the point of view of our overfished oceans. There’s no fish in any of it.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s still sushi. The word “sushi” just refers to the seasoned rice—in Japanese tradition, anything made with seasoned sushi rice can fairly be called sushi. It doesn’t have to include fish.

But whether you could really call Tracy’s chicken, beef, and bacon sushi rolls at Dean & Deluca “sustainable” would, of course, depend on how all that meat is sourced.

The good news is, veggie rolls are real sushi, too.

Drastic changes proposed for Maryland’s oyster industry:
The three-pronged proposal includes plans to increase Maryland’s network of oyster sanctuaries, expand areas available for aquaculture and private leasing of oyster harvesting, and protect current fisheries from leasing.
Because oysters naturally filter pollutants out of the water, a larger population might also mean a cleaner bay.

More DNA testing reveals yet more fraud at sushi restaurants. What if McDonald’s burgers were actually donkey meat? (Maybe they are.)

Hey, I have an idea: all fishermen around the world can only catch things with kayaks. No more factory trawlers, no more high-tech depth sounders and plotters, just you, your rod, and your kayak. Solves the overfishing dilemma right there.

Linda Bean told the Boston Globe:

We want to engender in people’s minds a sense of trust about the product that our fish is authentic from Maine, handled professionally and safely, wild caught and sustainable.

From the Globe & Mail article:

Bestselling author of The Secret Life of Lobsters Trevor Corson, himself a former lobster fisherman, says she is on to something. “The big challenge for the seafood industry in achieving sustainability is figuring out how to brand and source seafood. The main issue for consumers is: How do you know where your fish came from? In that sense, her idea is quite visionary.”