For Taras Grescoe, the decline of the oceans is personally distressing. A self-described “piscavore” (fish eater) for 10 years running, the Montreal-based food and travel writer is nothing if not adventurous: over the course of his new book, Bottomfeeder, he samples everything from Belon oysters to whale meat to the Chinese delicacy “drunken shrimp,” in which the crustaceans are served while still alive – and able to bite back. But Grescoe believes that global warming, massive overfishing, and the threat of invasive species may limit his future diet to kelp salad and “peanut butter and jellyfish sandwiches.” His concern is that “with great application, we are eating our way to the end of the food chain.”
Bottomfeeder is an indispensable guide to the global fishing industry that doubles as a maritime travelogue. As in his previous book, The Devil’s Picnic, Grescoe couples meticulous research with the wry wit of a flâneur, detailing his encounters with everyone from a guerilla marine biologist to a lugubrious Portuguese sardine fisherman. Short of donning scuba gear, Grescoe also goes to great lengths to acquaint his readers with the more bizarre (but still edible) creatures of the deep, such as the lamprey-like hagfish and the hideous goblin-faced monkfish, now ubiquitous on the menus of high-end seafood restaurants.
What Grescoe proposes is nothing less than a rethinking of our relationship to seafood, from the “fork back to the hook,” and Bottomfeeder could do for sustainable seafood what Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma has done for pasture-raised meat. It never really lives up to the “how to” in its title, though. Grescoe’s advice for ethical eating can be summed up by an understated axiom: “Get informed, and eat sensibly.” And, he adds, treat unsustainably harvested seafood such as shrimp as our grandparents did – as “an occasional seaside luxury,” not a cocktail munchie. It’s not lost on the author that serving up an ethical plate of seafood requires a willingness to shop around. In terms of policy, he argues for stricter labelling laws and the creation of marine preserves. But the real strength of Bottomfeeder is in raising, not answering, questions.
In Carnivore Chic, Susan Bourette’s culinary odyssey is decidedly less globally minded than Grescoe’s. A three-times-lapsed vegetarian with a guilty conscience, she aspires only to be “a kinder, gentler, more thoughtful carnivore.”
Bourette, a journalist by trade, clearly has a knack for hands-on reporting. In her quest for perfect meat she intrepidly joins the ranks of farmers, hunters, chefs, butchers, cowboys, and even assembly-line workers at a meat-packing plant, with its Inferno-like ambience. Bourette also endures not-so-subtle sexual harrassment in some of the remaining bastions of machismo: a luxury big-game hunting lodge, a sacred Inupiat whale hunt, a sprawling Texas cattle ranch. For sheer journalistic perserverance, she deserves our kudos.
But in failing to connect the dots between these players, Carnivore Chic ends up feeling like a collection of flashy magazine articles rather than a coherent look at our obsession with meat. And Bourette doesn’t know when to reign in her kitschy sense of humour. Comparing the moose in her crossbow’s sights to Bullwinkle J. Moose is tolerably twee the first time, but cringe-worthy by the third mention.
Bourette’s tastes are also peculiarly conservative for a food writer who cites Anthony Bourdain as an inspiration. Describing herself as “a white-bread woman from the milquetoast heartland of Canada,” she has a hard time stomaching such tame delicacies as beef carpaccio, game, and unpasteurized cheese.
Still, Bourette is refreshingly iconoclastic when it comes to the sacred cows – or pigs, to be precise – of food snobs and critics. She’s not afraid to voice her disappointment with the pasture-raised Berkshire pork served by Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a swank restaurant in upstate New York often celebrated by the gastronomical press. And she points out that expensive organic meat is a luxury most consumers simply can’t afford.
But too often she smothers her insights in cliché, like a chef reaching for the prepackaged spice mix. Observing the boutique butcher shops now vying with vegan restaurants in downtown Toronto, she writes: “Now, it’s the carnivores who rule cool. Meat is the new black.” But when did carnivores ever go away?