Friday, August 24, 2012

Tuna on Your Plate

American Tuna: the Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food. Andrew F. Smith. Published by University of California Press, 2012

In 1903 when canned tuna was a new food, it already had continued favor with recent immigrants, people from Italy and the Mediterranean region, and Asia, notably the Japanese. Part of the lag in American mainstream popularity was that canned tuna was virtually unknown, it wasn’t a staple like canned meat, and it required canning research to make it palatable and good-looking for consumers.

So while the future of the fish was then uncertain, apparently tuna had a toehold of popularity in the early 20th century due to sport fishers’ fascination with the game of reeling in a large fish. Pictures of men and women of the early 20th century and their stories of big and bigger catches were printed in coastal city newspapers for readers to admire and tuna fishing became celebrated nationally, increasing the possibility that tuna fish was desirable food. And later when the fledgling canning industry was struggling, marketing and merchandizing became more sophisticated with the challenge of canned tuna. Food writers contributed columns on the varieties of delicious tuna dishes, and the idea of providing recipes to buyers took hold and gave the promotion of canned tuna a real boost.

Tuna and saltwater fish in general have a very tenuous position as a staple item on our plates, at our tables. Fish as a commodity was politically traded to encourage other goods deemed more valuable. Beginning after World War II, a great many events contributed to the decline in the American tuna canning industry: tuna was destined to become an imported, not American-produced, food. As any fish coming from ocean waters outside of the legal range of our fishermen, tuna was regulated by international fisheries agreements, which shut out the American canning industry beginning in the 1960s.

If you want an exact account of tuna’s rise and fall as an American food, read Andrew Smith’s fact-filled and thoroughly researched book. He presents an introduction in minute detail of the many aspects, both cultural and political, of tuna history. The book consists of two parts, The Rise and The Fall, with appendix, notes, bibliography and index. The appendix’s “Historical Tuna Recipes” starts with Baked Tuna Spanish, a chowder, an omlette, and a soufflĂ©, among the typical tuna fish favorites as we know them. To know the whole story beyond our individual taste and cultural traditions, he’s provided a fascinating look at the way we value a food, the way we participate in the industrialization and marketing of a food that is prepared for us. Andrew Smith, thank you for your testimonial to tuna, a staple food of the American diet, by which we became healthy eating, and enjoyed for most of the last century.