American Tuna

American Tuna: Rise and Fall of An Improbable Fish, by Andrew F. Smith

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Reviewer: Shingo Hamada, Indiana University

For a Japanese graduate student living in the landlocked Midwest, scoring seafood that tastes the same as or even close to what his home country, which consumes seafood most in the world, offers is a challenging task. However, sea chicken is probably an exception, though oiliness and texture of the meat still slightly differs.American Tuna by Andrew F. Smith is a welcome addition to the University of California Press’s Food and Culture series, offering allegories in a unique cultural history of tuna in the United States. It focuses on the historical trajectory in which tuna has become the most popular seafood in the United States and simultaneously most concerned seafood with food safety and overexploitation as a global fishery resource. Smith shows how food studies can contribute to our understanding of the cultural construction of taste and distaste, while illuminating the cultural histories of tuna in the U.S. by connecting peoples, resources, and environments.

This book divides the contents into two parts: the rise and the fall. The first part of the book discusses the development of industrial and recreational tuna fishing. Fishers used to abhor tuna as large, voracious, harmful fish because it damaged their nets. However, the invention of saltwater sport-fishing in Southern California elevated the status of tuna from the trash fish to prime rod and reel sport-fishing target. Though many still considered tuna not suitable for human consumption and very few people knew about this fish prior to the twentieth century, some local entrepreneurs sought out business opportunities with canning tuna. Slowing recognized as a marketable food as ‘the chicken of the sea,’ commercial tuna fishing industry developed with the labor and skills provided notably by the immigrant communities of Japanese. Advertisement and cookbooks popularized tuna. The later half of the book describes the decline of tuna industries in the United Stated. Domestic tuna industries were outcompeted by foreign counterparts, and the post-WWII implementation of the 200 nautical mile economic exclusion zone triggered international conflicts over near and offshore tuna fisheries. While the intensification of fishing caused overfishing, the problems around domestic tuna industry concerned both the quantity and quality of tuna as accessible easy-to-take protein food. Smith also describes the controversy of porpoise fishing and by-catch caused by seine net fishing. The chapter Parts Per Million captures the development of the unabated controversy on the bioaccumulation of methylmercury in canned tuna while the view that tuna is a healthful, nutrition-rich, low-fat source of protein sustains it among most popular and consumed seafood in the United States.

The discussion of canned tuna in the U.S. this book offers contributes to broader discussions in anthropological food studies, political economy, and environmental history. The transformation of tuna from vicarious harmful aquatic animal to “a trash fish to an aquatic celebrity in the American imagination” (p13) exemplifies how our perceptions of taste and distaste are culturally and historically constructed. The increase of tuna consumption on meatless day due to religious customs and war efforts enriches our discussion in environmental history of seafood, which Brian Fagan also makes in his Fish On Friday. The commoditization and enactment of tuna as the delicious fish with the dissemination of tuna recipes in the late 1900s also suggests that the development of mass-printing technology could greatly influence foodscapes and national culinary culture. Finally, Smith’s focus on Pacific side of tuna fishing also makes an important contribution for the marine environmental history of tuna and North America because many previous studies paid great attentions to tuna fishing and farming in the Mediterranean.

In the meantime, while the book has a list of tuna recipes in its appendix, it does not contain any visual materials such as images of advertisements. It also includes no images and pictures of tuna, tuna fishing, canneries, or canned tuna. The readers visually do not see how big tuna is, what tuna canneries looked like, and how tuna fishing used to be done. Moreover, the author provides some statistical information in text, but there is no a chart that shows the rise and fall of tuna landings, imports and exports in the United States. The book mentions the decline of domestic tuna landings due to overfishing and unpredictable migratory patterns of albacore tuna, but the readers can only assume how rapidly or slowly tuna disappeared from the west coast of the United States. Reliable statistical data might not be available for citation for the book, but some documents such as archival visual and written records from three major tuna canning companies would have enriched the description and explanation of the cultural history of American tuna further.

Synthesizing the interplays of production, circulation and consumption remains to be one of the methodological challenges in the historiography and anthropology of food. American tuna is no exception. Discussion of the depletion of tuna in the North Pacific and the daunting history of Japanese-born tuna fishers gives us an opportunity to engage in political ecology of “fish and the people without history” in North America. However, I wish to learn more about roles of canned tuna in the food environments surrounding low-income and minority groups, especially because Smith states that by the beginning of the twentieth century, “[tuna] sales were limited to a few immigrant customers… and the poor, who could not afford more desirable fish” (p.8). As he describes the rise of tuna industry with the vicissitudes of Japanese communities in California well, I wish the book also discussed how the development of canned tuna as inexpensive food influenced foodways of other minorities living in the twentieth century especially non-Caucasian societies. For this matter, this book leaves food anthropologists and historians with a theoretical and methodological challenge for appropriately describing, with quantitative and qualitative resources, cultural histories of a particular food in time and space, without compromising the description of food and social justice.

Though the absence of historical photographs may let down some aficionados of food histories, the accessibility of Smith’s narratives will not fail to captivate interests of broad readerships, considering the familiarity of canned tuna as consumers. Smith hopes that understanding of various topics in this book “will improve decision-making in the future” (p. xii). American Tuna reminds us of the importance that we think where the food come from and what are really in cans or packages. This book will serve as a great monograph to supplement a main textbook for high school and undergraduate classes related to modern American food culture, environment and society.

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