When shopping in your local grocery store or at the fishmonger’s, you might hear your fellow consumers ask the same question over and over again: “Is this fresh?” Our obsession with freshness can be connected far back into our complex history with food, but the first question that we need to ask ourselves is: what does “fresh” actually mean?

What does the word “fresh” really mean when it comes to seafood?

Fresh, a Perishable History, is a book that explores that very question, and surprisingly, the answer is not that easy to pin down. When it comes to seafood, the idea of fresh can be applied to seafood that has just come from the ocean or lake, but for those who are geographically challenged — aka landlocked — what can we define as fresh? What about fresh from frozen? Many commercial fisheries flash freeze their catch moments after it is caught; it can be argued that the freezing process actually captures that freshness better than something sent to your local fishmonger after harvest. So is fresh from frozen still considered to be fresh? The debate continues.

Attaining freshness has drastically altered our food landscape and the way we access and place value upon food. Beginning with the epic marketing battle between refrigeration and the icebox man of the 1920s (you can guess who came out on top for that one), access to freshness has become synonymous with access to healthy and nourishing food, as well as a more luxurious lifestyle.

Advertisement for refrigerators from the 1920s which argue against the hassle of dealing with the iceman.

Consuming fish from foreign nations was not always commonplace. Lack of access to refrigeration or even ice also helped the shape the culinary traditions of different regions from around the world. Salted cod was a solution developed for preserving fish without access to ice or refrigeration and can still be found widely in many European cuisines. Although salted cod was not considered fresh, it was only way to maintain access to cod without worrying about it spoiling and allowed for transporting product long distances. For communities that lived by the ocean, fish in many forms became a staple, whereas for those who did not have easy access, fish became a rare and luxurious item for the elite. For example, in ancient times, anyone shopping the fish stalls in Athens was assumed to be from a wealthy household because they could afford to purchase fresh fish.

Another example that connects directly to our fresh obsession, and has been around since the time of ancient China, would be the live fish market. Wet-markets, as they are referred to today, are spaces where fish can be purchased at the pinnacle of freshness: while still alive. Taking a tour of the local wet-market reveals species both common and rare, with prices reflecting these differences. Rare species found within the live market also come at a high cost to the environment.

The diversity of the live fish market can be demonstrated in this photo from Sai Kung in China.

Methods to catch some species can include cyanide poisoning, in which cyanide is added to the water to stun the fish, but can also have devastating effects on the surrounding environment. Not all methods used for supporting the live fish trade are destructive. A good local example would be Sandplains Aquaculture. They are a land-based, closed recirculating system in Ontario which farm raises tilapia for the live market in Toronto in a completely sustainable way. A closed system ensures there is a reduced impact on the surrounding environment and farming this species in Canada helps to ensure local access to product.

Fresh, A Perishable History, provides great insight into our constantly evolving relationship with food and our access to it.

All I ask is that when you’re searching for seafood that’s fresh, you also make sure to ask if it is Ocean Wise recommended.

— Isabella Sulpizio, Ocean Wise Seafood Program

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