While a tin of sardines used to be considered a working-class lunch, the forage fish has gotten so hot in sustainability-savvy Seattle that putting it on a midday cafeteria menu feels oddly luxurious, according to the general manager of Starbucks Headquarters' on-site restaurant.
"Sardines aren't always a lunch item," says Sodo Cafe's Rick Stromire, who this week is serving grilled Pacific sardines stuffed with Asian pear, wrapped in shiso leaves and finished with local grapeseed oil.
Stromire developed the sardine dish for Bon Appetit Management Company's week-long Eat Local (Fish) Challenge, during which hundreds of cafeterias in 32 states will serve seafood sustainably farmed or harvested from within 500 miles of the kitchen. In addition to sardines, Stomire's crew will be plating paneer-stuffed ling cod; salmon wrapped in locally-foraged kelp and baked oysters. Plans to serve cured herring were scrapped when "the herring didn't show up," Stromire says. "Sardines and herring are first come, first served."
But beyond the Pacfic Northwest, demand for small fish is significantly less intense. Although Stromire observes the rules of the Eat Local (Fish) Challenge year-round, many of his colleagues in other regions struggle to interest their customers in anything other than salmon, canned tuna and shrimp.
"I know Seattle food folks are extremely savvy, but whenever I see sardines menued - or any low-trophic species like oysters, clams, or my own favorite, squid - I'm still thrilled," says Haven Bourque, a Bon Appetit consultant.
The National Fisheries Institute yesterday released a report showing the top 10 most popular seafood items nationwide account for 90 percent of the fish eaten in the U.S. Per capita, Americans annually eat 4.2 pounds of salmon, which led the list. The per capita consumption of clams, the last entry on the list, stands at just one-third of a pound. Overall, seafood consumption numbers remain paltry when measured against poultry, beef or pork.
And what's more alarming for seafood advocates is the origin of the fish on American plates: Almost all of the nation's favorite fish are imported. According to a new study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 91 percent of fish consumed nationwide in 2011 was processed overseas. Nearly half of those imports came from fish farms.
But as eaters familiar with the seafood industry know, aquaculture isn't always evil: Domestic, responsible shellfish farming is universally praised as an environmental and economic boon, and - as Bon Appetit's director of strategic sourcing wrote for Edible San Francisco - many small fish farms "aren't the monsters we associate with industrial operations. Some of them have introduced responsibly raised new species into the marketplace and are helping revitalize rural communities." As sustainability supporters readily admit, such gray areas have complicated ongoing efforts to educate consumers about seafood choice.
Farmed fish are featured prominently on Eat Local (Fish) Challenge menus in landlocked states. At St. Olaf College in Minnesota, students will have the chance to feast on Baldwin, Wisc. tilapia tacos with cucumber cilantro relish. The College of Idaho is serving white-wine poached sturgeon with tarragon sauce, and the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix is offering tilapia with roasted okra and sweet potato puree.
"We hope these rediscovered flavors will prompt diners to swim outside the usual air-freighted, mass-caught, or farmed-fish catch," a release announcing the program concludes.