The Majestic Blue

I say “tuna” and you think “little cans of cat food.”  Not true: blue-fin tuna is light years better than yellow-fin or albacore or skipjack tuna.  Those other kinds end up in tuna-noodle casserole with little bits of potato chip crumbled on top and baked in the oven.  (Or so says Tom Tuttle from Tacoma.)  Blue-fin tuna can grow to be 12 feet long and weigh in at as much as 1500 pounds, although mostly they don’t.  The underbelly on blue-fin yields this yummy meat known as “toro.”  The Japanese use “toro” from blue-fin tuna to make sushi.

I say “sushi” and you think “it’s like eating live bait.”  Not true: sushi consists of fish, vinegared rice, and vegetables.  You can think of it as a rice-and-fish sandwich.  It started out in south Asia, was introduced to south China, and was borrowed by Japan.  In Japan sushi began out as a fast-food sold on the streets.  People going to the theater in the Edo Period often bought sushi from a stall to take to the theater with them.  A sushi-chef (which is different from a sous-chef) made sushi from whatever fish were caught locally.  The main tuna fisheries were off Honshu and Okinawa.  After the Second World War, those clever Americans figured out how to freeze-dry new-caught tuna.  It didn’t lose its flavor sitting on layers of ice in the hold of a fishing boat for weeks before it got back to Japan.[1]  “Toro” became the mainstay of sushi.  Japanese sushi-eaters went wild.

By about 1975 sushi started to become popular in certain quarters of the United States.  OK, you won’t find it on the menu at Appleby’s and you can’t get a McSushi (yet).  But the very sophisticated Don Rumsfeld took General Tommy Franks out for dinner to a sushi place in DC before we invaded Iraq.  It was Rumsfeld’s idea of making nice with the guy he had ordered to invade another country on a sketchy—as you young people say—justification.  Take the Japanese sushi market and add in the American “I-wanna-be-sophisticated” market, you end up with a HUGE demand for tuna.  Now, a big blue-fin fresh offa da boat can be worth $100,000.

I say “tuna” and you think “guppies with a thyroid condition.”  Not true: they’re big fighting fish.  Drag you out of the chair on the back of a 25-foot Bartram sports-fisher if you aren’t strapped in.  It’s OK with the fish if you drown in the Gulf Stream and what’s left of you washes up months later in Plymouth, England.  (It’s kind of like casting for pit-bulls from the back of an F-150 in North Philly.)  So, fishermen started seining for them with big nets.  In 1953, a refugee from Croatia named Mario Puratic[2] invented an improved system for setting and hauling purse seine nets.  (It’s called the “Power Block.”)  Seining fish, including blue-fin, became much easier.  There used to be a lot of blue-fin tuna.  In the 1940s there were 20 times as many Atlantic and Mediterranean tuna as today.  Also, now they’re runty when they get caught.  Tuna caught in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean are only about half the weight of tuna caught in “the old days.”  Pretty soon, no more Atlantic blue-fin tuna.  (Pacific blue-fin stocks seem to be holding up alright for the moment.)  Once they go, there will need to be 12-step programs to help people suffering from sushi-withdrawal.  What do the Japanese think of 12-step programs?

[1] Also, the Americans stopped testing atomic weapons on Pacific atolls, so the fishing boats didn’t have to pass through clouds of radiation on their way home with their holds full of irradiated fish.  See: “Fishzilla.”

[2] Puratic was born in 1917 on the incredibly cute little island of Brac.  If you retired to the town of Supetar on Brac you could sit under the grape arbor beside your old stone house in the afternoon, sipping wine and watching the ferry from Split arrive.  A developer near Dallas is building a resort modeled on Supetar.  The signs at the garbage dump will be in Croatian.  Puratic left in 1938 and wound up working as a fisherman in San Pedro, California.

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