The Chickening of America, or Why We Don’t Eat Fish (But Could Eat More)

by Carol A Westbrook

It's Lent. For many people, that means you have to deprive yourself of food that you like to eat, and instead punish yourself by eating fish. In actuality, you are not required to eat fish during the forty days of Lent, devout Catholics and other Christians are only required to abstain from meat on Lenten Fridays. Fish is merely a protein can be conveniently substituted for the missing meat course–or you can eat eggs, cheese, pizza or eggplant Parmesan instead.

Yet some people are so unused to eating fish that when it appears in their diets it is memorable. Eating fish means "Lent." And they hate it.

During Lent we "try" to eat fish, and for many, McDonald's Filet-O-Fish is the answer. Fillet1The company sells nearly a quarter its filling, 390-calorie sandwiches during the six-week Lenten season. Although it contains wild-caught Alaskan Pollock, the sandwich contains only 2.8 oz. this fish (as I calculated from the protein content provided in McDonald's online nutritional information). Since 2.8 g of Alaskan Pollock has only 73 calories and 0.8 g of fat, the Filet-O-Fish's 390 calories and 18.2 g of fat can only be attributed to the bread, tartar sauce, and melted cheese.

I don't eat Filet-O-Fish because I honestly like fish a great deal more than I like bread, tartar sauce and melted cheese. Truly, I love fish. I love eating it in any way, shape or form — from smoked and pickled, to raw, fried, steamed and everything between. For example, while vacationing in Martinique, I had a plate of whole fried ballaboo, a local reef fish with a cute pointy nose that was meant to be eaten whole after deep-frying, sans pointy nose. Yum! (See the picture on the right). But most Americans don't share my passion, they hate fish.

BallabooYes, it is true. Americans don't like to eat fish. The per-capita consumption of seafood in this country is remarkably low–on average, we consume only about 15 pounds per person per year, while the per-capita consumption of egg, chicken, beef and pork, at 195 pounds, is about 13 times higher! This is paltry compared to European fish consumption, 54 pounds per person per year. Even land-locked Switzerland consumes about 35 pounds per person per year. Of those 15 pounds of fish, only about 10 pounds is fin fish (the rest is shrimp).

Ten pounds of fish means only two meager 6-ounce fish meals each month, or one Filet-O-Fish per week. Fifteen pounds per person per year. That's a total of 4.5 million pounds of seafood, in a country where our yearly harvest is 11 billion pounds, both fished (9.5 billion pounds) and farmed (662 million pounds). The US is the fifth largest producer of seafood in the world, and we export almost all of it. Ironically, for all of this abundance of seafood, most of the fish we eat is imported! Yes, it's true–we buy back our own fish from countries like China that purchase it, clean and bone it, process it to individual portions, re-freeze it, and sell it back to us.

My purpose is not to convince you to eat fish; I know that's impossible. I'm just trying to understand why the average American doesn't like fish. There is no biologic reason; unlike bitter foods, or cabbagey foods like brocolli, there is no specific taste receptor that might get triggered. When I ask Google why people don't like fish, I only get a lot of blogs saying things like, "Eww. Fish is so disgusting." "It's smelly." "It's scary, it will make me sick." "I don't know how to cook it" "I have to dissect it to eat it." "I don't want to look at the eyes." You get the picture. The aversion is cultural, it is learned, it is ingrained.

There are people who aren't averse to fish, but even those Americans prefer to eat a bland lump of an overcooked, tasteless white or pink food than delight in the culinary experience of a freshly-caught piece of fish, cooked to the proper degree of doneness, and lightly seasoned. Now that I think about it, Americans prefer to see all of their animal-based food as a bland lump, rather than appearing as it really is: a piece of meat with bones, skin, sinews and organs. The model for the ideal food is a boneless, skinless chicken breast. This is what I mean by "The Chickening of America." Don't believe me? You may recall that in the 90's the National Pork Council had a campaign to get people to buy more pork by touting it as "The other white meat." It succeeded.

Try this experiment. Walk through a supermarket and look for a bone-in pork chop, a bone-in beef or pork shoulder roast, and a ham that isn't semi-boneless and spiral sliced. Chances are you can't find all three. In some supermarkets it's even hard to find a whole chicken, though you can still buy drumsticks and wings that have bones. Thanksgiving may be the only time where we ever sacrifice a whole animal for a meal, but even then we buy one that has been cleaned, dressed, and injected with marinade.

And that's not all. These lumps of homogeneous mystery meat taste so bland that now we need to make them more palatable by covering them with seasoning and sauces, adding back as much saturated fat, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and salt as possible, thereby swamping any nutritional value the meat might possible have. Or we'll take the tasteless lump and serve it smothered in sauces, gravy, melted cheese and saturated fat… Or we cover it in batter and deep fry. Tilapia Have a hankering for a whole lobster? Red Lobster restaurants push the cheesy lobster casserole or skewered lobster meat instead. If you insist on a cooked whole lobster they will plate if for you after they have conveniently remove the offensive anatomic parts (the tasty tomales and roe) and pulled the meat out of its shell to save you the trouble of having to dissect it. (pix mystery meat)

So what's the problem with fish? Why can't we just eat more even it we have to manipulate and disguise it? We don't because no matter how we disguise it, what remains is still the idea of fish–fishy smell, scales, fins and, well, anatomy.Yuck. It may look like chicken but, as Helene York wrote in The Atlantic, Nov 13, 2012, "Despite how it's marketed, most seafood doesn't taste like chicken."