Following up on my kipper post, I want to turn to questions I’ve been asked about fish, particularly about why the Irish could not substitute fish for potatoes during the Famine. Rather than answer that directly, it’s worth remembering that it’s the rare, perhaps nonexistent human society that eats everything edible that it has access to.

Fish is a food that over history many societies have shunned.  I am not talking about an outright taboo here. Rather, I’m referring to the many people who live by the ocean or along rivers who don’t seem to make the use of fish that might be expected.

Just a few examples.

  • “Eating fish is a difficult subject to address, as far as the Greeks and Romans were concerned, because, to a significant extent, fish were [regarded as] inedible.” Nicholas Purcell (now Camden Professor of Ancient History at Oxford University) in John Wilkins et al, eds., Food in Antiquity (1995), 132.
  • “New Englanders, like many other North Americans, resisted eating fish for most of the region’s history.” Sandra L. Oliver, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and their Food (1990), 332.
  • For African-Americans, German-Americans and English- Americans in southern Illinois “fish is a low prestige food, and this feeling is present even in the fishing group—regionally the most generally distrusted and despised group.” John W. Bennett, “Food and Culture in Southern Illinois, American Sociological Review (1942), 656.
  • “I remember being puzzled in Durban, South Africa, why fish hardly seemed to feature on local menus . . . No examples I could find of local dishes using lesser known native fish, which is what you would find in really fish appreciating cultures – and this despite cold seas close by where there must have been great fishy abundance. I was told by an old South African Indian lady that the Indians relished some of it, specifically the annual sardine harvests, but both black and white South Africans had little taste for fish instead of beef and goat.” Vikram Doctor, comment on this blog.

So what is it about fish that makes it more than usually unacceptable?  Interestingly, the reasons are surprisingly consistent, at least across the Western world.

Here is a list, beginning with the most obvious and moving to some very fundamental qualms about fish as food.

  1. Bones and skin. Now most fish is sold filleted, but this only started about a hundred years ago and did not become common until after World War II. The skin can be tough too. See kippers.
  2. Even in the mild climate of, say, northern Europe, fish quickly goes bad. Thus most fish have to be preserved by drying, fermenting, pickling, salting, and/or smoking. Climate (sun and wind) and natural resources (salt) limit these methods to certain areas. Capital (to build smokehouses) and skill further limit their use. See kippers.
  3. Problems disposing of the catch, a corollary of perishability. There’s no incentive to put to sea or spend hours pulling fish from a river if you can’t eat or sell what you catch. Many good ocean fishing grounds are off remote coasts (see cod). In the Middle Ages, fish were sent by relays of galloping horses to royal courts up to a hundred miles away. For fish trundled along muddy lanes in a wheelbarrow, the limit was probably more like twenty miles.
  4. The low chance of catching a big fish. Native Hawaiians, good seamen by any standards, rarely went to the deep ocean for tuna because apart from being dangerous, the likelihood of coming across one was just not worth the gamble. Instead, being fine hydraulic engineers, thousands of Hawaiians hauled tons of rock and soil to construct hundreds of fishponds to raise a reliable supply of smaller fish.
  5. Vagaries of supply. Few fish are just there for the catching when you want them. They move around, sometimes huge distances, sometimes over periods of a year.  Fish were thus either a last resort or an occasional windfall.
  6. Not as filling as grain or roots, the chief alternatives for the poor or meat, the chief alternative for the rich. A kilo of fish has only about 2/3 the calories of a kilo of grain and about 1/3 the calories of a kilo of meat. For societies that regularly hovered on the brink of scarcity, it made more sense to apply energy to farming than to fishing.
  7. Bad associations of fish eating. Fish eating was associated with the poor (almost everywhere) and with enforced fasting (Christianity). Thus traditional New Englanders saw fish as food for the poor, immigrants, or Roman Catholics (sometimes one and the same).
  8. Bad associations with fishermen. Fishing was hard, dangerous work. In many societies fishermen were at the low end of the social scale, lower than peasants, for example. For those who did not rule, fight or pray, the business was to till the soil, not to go to sea. Fishermen were low on the social scale, outsiders, rough, uncivilized.
  9. Bad associations of the ocean. For most traditional societies, certainly in the West and I would imagine in many other regions too, land is the source of wealth. The sea is largely a dangerous desert.
  10. Bad associations of fish. Fish lacked blood and limbs. It seemed more like a snake (always a fearful creature) than an animal. It was wild, not domesticated. Unlike game, which could be kept in game parks and hunted at will by the aristocracy, with rare exceptions efforts to bring fish into a regulated human sphere were not very successful.

In short, while meat gave rise to the term of praise“beefy” at least in the Anglo world, fish was, well, “fishy.”

To conclude, consider this nineteenth-century description of fish in the Shetland Isles off the north of Scotland.

“The staple article of diet among the Shetlanders is fish, and so fond are they of it that they could eat it at every meal, and never wish a change. What they call the greyfish, or sillock, already alluded to, is the most esteemed. These swarm in countless numbers along the coasts, and whenever weather will permit every spare moment is spent in catching them. It is surprising how a man will sit on the rocks, or in his boat, on a cold winter day, regardless of the piercing winds and driving sleet, till he has filled his “buddie,” and so secured the evening’s meal and next morning’s supply. In cooking these fishes the people boil them with potatoes, as it is supposed that a finer relish is thus imparted to the latter. The piltock, which is the sillock in its second year, is with all classes reckoned a great delicacy, especially when eaten cold with vinegar. Sillocks and piltocks are used fresh, or sour, or “blawn.” The “sour” are semi-putrid, but are much liked notwithstanding. “Blawn” sillocks are those which have been dried for some time in the open air. Before they can be used they must be thoroughly soaked in water, and even then are very insipid. Great quantities of these are regularly prepared by every family for winter consumption, and hung in rows under the roof of their houses.”  FromThe Food Journal: A Review of Social and Sanitary Economy and Monthly Record of Food and Public Health, Volume 3 (London, 1873.) From the always informative The Old Foodie. 

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