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Porgy and Bess, which opens this weekend at McCaw Hall, is sort of a story about sustainable seafood.
Seattle Opera is unlikely to mention as much in its program notes, but the male lead in George Gershwin's opera shares a name with a fish that's been at the center of sustainability discussions in the south Atlantic.
DuBose Heyward, Gershwin's librettist and the author of the novel from which Porgy and Bess took its storyline, knew a man named "Goat Cart Sam." So did most everyone else in Charleston: Samuel Smalls, a crippled peanut-cake seller confined to a goat-drawn cart, was a frequent sight on the city's streets. For his book, Heyward reinvented Smalls as "Porgy."
Porgy was a popular fish in Georgia and the Carolinas because it slithered so close to shore that eaters didn't need fancy rigs to catch one for dinner. Consumption peaked in the 1980s, when Southerners were annually consuming about two million pounds of porgy. Porgy sales were also plumped by restaurateurs who realized they could pass off the cheap fish as costlier red snapper.
With porgy populations dwindling, regulators limited its harvest. The fish has recovered so rapidly that Seafood Watch now lists porgy as a "good alternative." Porgy is often caught as bycatch, which means creating a porgy market could help reduce waste, in addition to deterring eaters from less-sustainable species.
But sustainable seafood advocates have struggled to sell consumers on porgy, which is still considered poverty food. The same association that prompted Heyward to christen his character "Porgy" is keeping some eaters from embracing the former trash fish.
"It was probably consumed by slaves, and could have had a cultural taboo," Megan Westmeyer, coordinator of the South Carolina Aquarium's Sustainable Seafood Initiative told me back in 2009.
Still, the Sustainable Seafood Initiative has successfully pressed leading chefs to include porgy on their menus. Pink porgy shows up at high-end restaurants in Houston, and red porgy is served on fine china in Charleston. While Native Americans used the fish as fertilizer, porgy is too good to bury: The fish is fleshy and sweet.
So enjoy Porgy and Bess. And, if you find yourself in porgy country, enjoy the fish.