Learning from food history to create a new sustainable future
Better to go back to our cultural roots, widen our palates and eat seafood from lower down the food chain
Our current seafood preferences mean that we eat a lot of predators from the top of the food chain such as muscular, fast-moving large fish like cod or tuna. Photograph: Getty Images
Dublin has had a long and lively history of local seafood consumption with a huge diversity of seafood on offer through the centuries. What kinds of seafood we eat and how we eat it has changed over time and our consumption patterns have some fascinating ecological links as well as solutions for a sustainable future.
Our current seafood preferences mean that we eat a lot of predators from the top of the food chain such as muscular, fast-moving large fish like cod or tuna. One kilogram of cod is produced by the cod eating many small fish which themselves eat smaller fish, right down to the eggs and juvenile stages of shellfish and crustaceans like mussels and crabs which themselves eat tiny plants called phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain.
Mussels and oysters are filter-feeders which means they pump seawater through their bodies, intercepting tasty bits of plant and animal plankton and pump the waste water out of their bodies.
While the kilo of cod is being produced by this long chain of organisms a lot of energy is lost from the system. It might take hundreds of kilograms of organisms lower in the food chain to produce 1kg of cod. In ecology the different levels of the food chain are called trophic levels with predators at the top and plants that capture energy from the sun at the bottom.
If you stack the mass of organisms at each of these levels on top of each other they form a pyramid with very few predators at the top relying on a large base of plants at the bottom with the herbivores or vegetarians in between.
By choosing to eat the tastiest parts of the top predators of the ocean we are actually using a much larger portion of the ocean’s resources than if we ate species of lower trophic levels like shellfish and crustaceans. A more sustainable choice would be to go back to our cultural roots, widen our palates and eat seafood from lower levels of the food chain.
This is where history comes in. The Food Smart Dublin project is looking for volunteers to test different kinds of seafood with a historical twist, using recipes of traditionally consumed seafood through the centuries. They have unearthed historical recipes for pickled cockles and mussels, potted crab and even cod head terrine which uses an underutilised part of the fish.
These recipes have come from archives, old books and oral folklore projects. You can participate by choosing to cook from the historical recipes or follow a professional chef’s reimagined version. The project makes it easy to source the seafood you need from local fishmongers or a sustainable seafood distributor, videos and recipes are available and volunteers are asked to fill in a questionnaire about their new food experience.
Seafood consumption in the past in Ireland included many filter feeders such as the familiar mussels and oysters as well as whelks, cockles, razor shells and limpets. Many of us have never seen these alternative seafood sources in a shop, on a menu or have cooked them at home.
Diets which are healthy for humans and sustainable for the planet have been proposed to include more plant-based foods and lower impact animal protein sources such as the filter-feeders found lower in the food chain. To help ourselves and the planet we need to learn to love long-neglected seafoods again.
It is all very well knowing that you should switch your diet but actually getting people to change their eating habits requires engagement, research and learning. The Food Smart Dublin historical seafood recipe project takes collaborative research and learning to a new level by combining ecology, history, sustainability, cooking and community engagement.
It takes courage to try something new but with a professional chef to guide you it is worth a shot. By cooking dinner from one of the Food Smart Dublin recipes you can do yourself and the planet a favour, tick off most of a homeschool curriculum and get a very tasty meal while you hum a few lines of Molly Malone.
Yvonne Buckley is an ecologist and professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin