Rachel Laudan

10 Reasons Why Fish Has Been So Suspect as Food

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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15 thoughts on “10 Reasons Why Fish Has Been So Suspect as Food

  1. waltzingaustralia

    Very interesting. Triggered a few thoughts based on things I’ve seen. I have encountered groups that don’t eat fish, but had never thought of it as something other than a local attitude. For example, Mongolians pretty much define their diet as meat. Eating pork is seen as “going Chinese,” which is not a term of flattery. But fish are something Russians eat, not Mongols. And this despite the fact that Lake Huvsgul offers an abundance of fish.

    The comment about bad associations with the ocean reminded me of Bali. All directions are toward the central mountain or toward the ocean, with the mountain being holy and the ocean being where demons reside.

    And at least a couple of groups that do rely on fish do have some sort of fermented/rotted/putrid fish as a local specialty. In Iceland, for example, there is rotted shark, and in Sweden, they enjoy fermented herring. (I’ve had the rotted shark, and it was horrific. Can’t even imagine anything ever compelling me to eat the fermented herring. But then, I don’t like herring.)

    So interested to find out that this is more widespread than I’d realized. Especially for New England, which I’ve always associated with fishing. But then, I guess they mostly went for whales, and that was for oil, not for food.

    As always, thanks for your insights.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for this, Cynthia. I’ve seen several references to the idea that nomads are particularly likely to avoid fish. The Bali point is well taken. And New Englanders did go for the rich fishing grounds off shore as well as whales I’m pretty certain.

  2. Rachel Laudan Post author

    From Anne Mendelson — “Tried to post and managed to cut myself off prematurely. What I meant to say was that maybe you should ask some friends or acquaintances who dislike fish why it turns them off. I’ve found that many people instinctively shrink from it without being able to explain why. In this country a lot, though by no means all, are Midwesterners. (We almost never ate fish at home when I was growing up, and I didn’t realize until much later that it was outside the comfort zone of my Midwestern-born mother.) A young woman in Cincinnati once firmly told me, “If it swims in water, I don’t want to put it in my mouth.” (Interestingly, she had no problem with shrimp — and though I haven’t tried to research the matter, I think this is a fairly common inconsistency.) My husband, who loved fish, was always firmly convinced that people who hated it just hadn’t had it properly cooked; he was always surprised when they demurred at his well-meaning efforts at enlightening their ignorance. His own sister was a non-fish-lover — something I didn’t realize until I once tenderly cooked up a beautiful batch of gefilte fish and was mortified to see her valiantly but not very successfully trying to choke down a few mouthfuls for politeness’s sake. Historical forces can go only so far in trying to account for such visceral reactions. I’m inclined to think that your snake analogy should be looked into further — maybe the cold-bloodedness of fish, and the absence of “meaty” qualities in their flesh, make some people recoil from them.”

  3. Nancy Jenkins

    As a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I would contest the idea that New Englanders don’t eat fish. Maybe some don’t (or didn’t) but here on the coast of Maine fish was an important and cherished part of everyone’s table. Fridays especially, though we were not Catholics (perish forbid!) but Friday was a good day to remember your weekly fish ration. There were, indeed, certain fish we did not eat (mussels, squid, cod–for my mother who always said cod is wormy, and she was right) but the rest, the haddock, halibut, cusk, hake, not to mention clams, crabmeat, and lobsters, were important. And the recipes for chowders, gratins (called scalloped dishes), simply baked and roasted whole fish, fish fries, fish hash, fish balls, the variety of recipes in old cookbooks is more evidence of the extent to which seafood was valued. Then I should mention also salt and smoked fish–salt cod, smoked alewives, hot and cold smoked salmon–these were all part of an abundance that could not be ignored by any culinary culture that valued economy as much as the New England one did.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Nancy, far be it from me, a total foreigner to New England, to dispute your reports of food in coastal Maine. And, to make it clear, I am not claiming that fish was not eaten. I base my case on Sandy Oliver’s work when she was at the Mystic Seaport Museum. As you will remember, she devoted an entire chapter to the uneasiness many felt about fish. And what struck me as so interesting when I read this (sigh) almost twenty years ago is that the much of the uneasiness mirrored the uneasiness Purcell was teasing out for the northern Mediterranean in Antiquity.

  4. Anjali Koli

    I am from a fishing community on the Indian west coast and the financial capital Mumbai. I agree with most of the reasons cited. Vagaries of supply, low calorific value, not much meat, perishability, risks in fishing on high seas, efforts for preserving excess catch. History tells us that seafood got respect when fishing got mechanized and with refrigeration. The stench of fish going bad is most times what puts off people from accepting it as food. Other things not mentioned are lack of skills for fishing in men from the inland and lack of skills and experience in eating the fish too. Majority of inland populace is agrarian. It is only the coastal settlements where these skills are found and practiced. We recognize and appreciate only the food we know and everything unknown is always looked at with suspicion in an attempt to protect self from perceived harm.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thank you Anjali. Delighted to have a comment from a different tradition. Enjoyed your blog.

      1. Vikram

        As Anjali says, you have captured most of the reasons, and she adds an important one about the smell. This gets cited all the time across cultures – remember Unhygienix the fishmonger in the Asterix comics – and unfortunately it applies with double force to the one way to get around the perishability of fish which is salting and drying it.

        Both the process of drying and cooking dried fish leads to powerfully strong smells and its one reason why even in Mumbai, where both Anjali and I live, dried fish dishes, which were a key part of local cuisine (and which she chronicles so well in her blog) are disappearing from the menus. Most of us live in apartment blocks where we get complaints from neighbours and restaurants also don’t dare cook dried fish dishes for fear of how the smell will linger.

        Its worth noting that fish comes with some particular toxic risks of its own. I’ve written about them in this piece:

        In particular, I think scombroid poisoning, which is not usually fatal, but causes discomfort, convinces a lot of people that fish isn’t for them. (I might be feeling a bit more sensitive to this at the moment since I fell prey just last week. Driving to Goa I couldn’t resist having mackerel curry about half way down, but the restaurant was quite a bit inland and in the few hours it would have taken for the fish to reach…well, lets just say I had to take my first day in Goa carefully!)

        Your discussion is mostly about sea fish. I wonder if similar issues crop up with river fish. One problem I can see with them is the ”muddy” taste you get with carp and comes from a chemical called geosmin. I think the prevalence of this varies with season and the type of water the fish is caught in. River fish also tend to be bonier than sea fish.

        Perhaps its also just a question of size. Other animals are large enough to appear more impressive. This might explain why larger fish like salmon, pike and carp are higher value.

        And there are oddball local reasons too. In Mumbai its quite common to get the smaller tuna varieties, but they aren’t highly valued – ironic given their value abroad. One reason that’s given is that tuna has red blood and that reminds many Hindus uncomfortably of cows and goats, which they won’t consume.

        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Thanks for this comment, thought provoking as usual. Response when I have had time to think it through.

  5. ganna

    In Estonia (boasting a long coastline as well as several islands in the Baltic Sea, with abundant lakes and rivers) people have eaten fish ever since.

    However the Soviet power made up for its economic fallacies with the ferocity of guarding their borders. The infamous Iron Curtain crashed down on the ports and piers and bridges. We could get tinned or deep frozen fish from Vladivostok on the Pacific instead. Oh the glorious power of a state transporting perishables halfway across the globe. (Fish was so NOT what anyone sane would eat.)

    To make matters worse news of meat shortages finally reached the Kremlin so they declared Thursday (so as not to concur with any religious traditions, I suppose) the Fish Day. And OMG the fish. It was cooked up and served everywhere from the best restaurants to kindergarten kitchens, and anywhere it was not too fresh.

    So fish sure is … fishy for me.

  6. Nick Trachet

    Consider this:
    Upper class Europe despised most seawater fish with exception of the turbot, praise sinde the time of Roman emperors.
    Salt cod and salt herring, on the other side, were extremely sought after with the lower classes, and still are. Salt cod is especially popular in Brazil, the West-Indies, Spain, Portugal, Italy… all of them countries where never a cod was caught! Smoked red herring is a treat in Egypt and the whole of West-Africa. Not herring catching countries.

    Popular with the European upper class were the anadrome fishes such as salmon, sturgeon, trout, vendace… fit for the table of emperors.
    Other anadrome fishes such as shad and eel were lower class, because of their resemblance to herring and snake respectively. But nevertheless very much sought for. Freshwater fishes were generally lower class. In eastern Europe, carp is the dish for Christmas!
    Then there is the rare burbot (Lota lota, the only freshwater member of the cod family) that was only eaten by the elite (especially the liver).

    In Belgium, mussels were (and are) outrageously popular in working class society, the oyster is an elite treat since Roman times.

    I think in millions of households all over the world god is praised for tinned sardines and mackerel

    And you tell fish isn’t popular?

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Nick, I don’t dispute that fish is popular, particularly as you point out, preserved fish and the anadrome fish with the upper class. What I do want to do is explain why some societies either shun fish or avoid a lot of fish (broadly understood) that one might expect they would eat. This, by the way, is not just an issue with fish. As I said in my introduction to the blog post, there appear to be no or vanishingly few societies that eat everything edible in their area. So there is a historical problem about why. That’s all I am trying to address.

  7. Linda Makris

    I would like to add to your citing of Purcell in “Food in Antiquity” He goes on to say in the 2nd paragraph of his intro to Chapt 10 ” Eating fish: The Paradoxes of Seafood”: “These Negative connotations are reflected in the complexity of the cultural symbolism of fish in antiquity . . . The importance of fish as a sign is a direct reflection of the unpalatable fact that the inedible was frequently eaten by very many people in the coastlands of the Mediterranean.”

    In fact, fish was very important item on the ancient dinner plate [in fact the plates were often decorated with fish and other sea creatures.] The Greeks from Homeric times divided their system of diet into three distinct parts: SITOS-OPSON-POTON. Sitos was the staple, cereals, mainly in the form of bread. Poton was what they drank, almost always wine [mixed with water]. The 3rd opson was the most important and often the most controversial. Originally opson was any food eaten with sitos. But later in classical 5th c Greece the diminutive form – OPSARION – came to mean “dainties” or “relist” particularly fish or seafood delicacies. Worthy of note is the modern Greek word for fish PSARI, which is derived from this distinction.

    Today modern Greeks adore fish and seafood. And they are willing to pay higher prices for it. The freshest and best seafood – they believe- comes from the AEgean. Everyone thinks the Greeks live off of the ubiquitous souvlaki, but fine dining, as in ancient Greece, is equated with a fine fish, simply broiled and served with a sprinkling of salt, oregano, olive oil and lemon juice. I come from the Midwest USA where we never ate much fish even though we lived on the shores of Lake Michigan. It was here that I learned to choose, clean, cook, and savor fine fish! A visit to Athens Fish market at Varvakeion Agora on Athinas Street is a must for tourists!

  8. The Millers Tale

    Had an interesting chat with a Sardi fisherman a few years ago who explained why Sardinia doesn’t have the fish and seafood-centric cuisine you’d expect them to have. Yes, we eat these things now, he said. “But our history of invasion and the patterns of movement of people that allowed us to effectively monitor our land for invaders and defend against them meant we found it easier to rear and eat meat because we lived in the mountainous interior.”

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