Ghost Acreage for the Chicken of the Sea

Pears and pumpkins are ripe in the fall. Asparagus is ready in the spring. However, a stroll down the aisles of your local grocer would confuse any shopper about the weather outside. Harvest seasons are extended by the use of greenhouses, different varieties of seeds, and planting methods. The main reason you can taste apples in the spring, though, is due to our global food chains.

We think of globalized eating as a new phenomenon. Read any book by Michael Pollan and you would think that eating beyond our borders is just a post WWII reality. It is true that the way we eat today is historically unique. The mass movement of commodities that we witness today is different than in other periods and it has a huge impact on our ecological systems. However, it is not completely unique.

Most historians of the Americas, Europe, or Africa (or probably anyone who ever went to grade school or high school in North America) has probably come across a discussion of the triangle trade: the exchange of people and goods between the Atlantic coasts. Alfred Crosby's classic work The Columbian Exchange: biological and cultural consequences of 1492, discusses in detail the kinds of materials that were transported between these continents. His book has led to other important studies on the exchange of seeds, germplasm, and other plant and edible goods, such as Judith Ann Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff's In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World.  However, the global exchange of food items and seeds is an even older phenomenon.

Historican Eric Jones, in The European Miracle, made popular Georg Borgstrom's phrase "ghost acreage" to refer to the event in which a group of people would draw upon resources from lands outside their borders, enabling those people to support much larger economies than they otherwise could. This concept is built upon by Richard Hoffman in his article "Frontier Foods for Late Medieval Consumers: Culture, Economy, Ecology" in which he argues that the process of western humans eating beyond the bounds of their local ecosystems goes back to the times of the middle ages. The term "acreage" itself is a bit of a misnomer, because the concept refers to the movement of all biomass and their calories that moved across major ecological boundaries from thinly populated areas on Europe’s peripheries. Even in medieval times, the globalized movements of foodstuffs happened with long distance trades in grain, cattle, and preserved fish. One of Hoffman's most important points is that feeding beyond boundaries allowed people and cultures to change their gustatory preferences and even forget the social and environmental costs of satisfying them.

Just because ghost acreage or globalized eating is not a new phenomenon does not mean that it does not pose an ecological problem. In medieval times, overfishing became a problem, due to the population's desire for salted cod. Today, this issue of overfishing persists but at a larger scale. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Institute, a world leader of research on overfishing and its impact on ocean health, 90 percent of the world's fisheries are either fully exploited, overexploited or have collapsed. The global fishing fleet is operating at 2.5 times the sustainable level. Larger fish are some of the most at-risk populations, and that can include tuna. The Institute produces a Seafood Watch website with helpful information about what species you can consume most responsibly.

This is all to say that I cooked fresh tuna for the first time with Artusi's recipe for Tonno Fresco Con Piselli (Tuna with Peas).

Artusi recommends that when making this dish, you use "the tenderest, most delicate part of this fish is the belly, which in Tuscany is called "sorra" (337). I have no idea which part of the fish that my steak came from since I did not catch it myself.

I followed his instructions to:
- Cut the tuna into half a finger thick slices.
- Place on the fire a generous soffritto of garlic, parsley, and oil and, when the garlic starts to brown, put in the fish.
- Season with salt and pepper, turn the slices on both sides, and when half cooked, add tomato sauce (recipe 6) or diluted tomato paste. (For this step, I used the tomato sauce that Emili had prepared)
- When it is cooked through, remove the tuna and cook some peas in the sauce; then put the tuna back on top of the peas to warm it up, and send it to the table with this accompaniment.

The dish didn't taste much different than throwing a can of tuna into some tomato sauce or a can of tomatoes and warming it in a pan to mix with spaghetti (a go-to recipe back in my younger years).

While Artusi's recipe doesn't leave one with many thoughts, the tuna itself is part of a much longer discussion about personal and corporate responsibility regarding how we source our food. Choosing to cook an endangered or threatened fish species, eating produce out of season, and preparing meats from species with a larger carbon impact (such as cows) are all decisions that we make that have an impact on both our local and global environments.