I recently read Abide with Me, the 2006 novel by Elizabeth Strout, author of last year's Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge. At one point the hero, a minister, worries aloud about being confused. Another character points out that confusion can be good because it's hard to be dogmatic when you're confused.
I'm confused all the time, which I hate, but this made me feel better. It's the underlying confusion that I appreciated in Wednesday's article in the New York Times by Mark Bittman about the ethics of buying and eating fish. Figuring out what to do isn't easy, and he wrestles with the moral and practical questions right there on the page. Compare his piece with this passage from a well-received 2008 cookbook:
"Wild salmon is the healthiest and most sustainable salmon, and it's also the best tasting by far. Farmed salmon are as bland an flavorless as factory chicken. They're fed a dubious diet and require antibiotics to control the disease that inevitably results from their crowded, polluting pens. When they escape, farmed fish endanger native species. Need any more reasons to go wild? 'Fish gotta swim for both flavor and health.'"
No, I don't need any more reasons to "go wild." What I need to "go wild" is a trust fund.
Ten years ago, after listening to a devastating radio program, I decided to never buy farmed salmon again -- except at Whole Foods. I like to think (but have no hard evidence for thinking) that Whole Foods holds its purveyors to higher standards that most shops, as they (of course) claim to do. High enough? Don't know. I should research this, but should also spend more time with my grandmother, read the newspaper, balance the checkbook, and find a new job. Meanwhile, this is where I've drawn a wobbly line in the sand with regards to salmon. The other day I bought the Whole Foods farmed salmon -- it's lovely, not "bland and flavorless" - for $6.99 a pound. The wild salmon: $24.99.
I could be convinced to stop buying Whole Foods farmed salmon. I'm open to informed persuasion. Sell me. I might eventually be willing, if not especially eager, to agree that salmon -- beautiful, velvety, luscious salmon -- should be treated like caviar and chanterelles, a luxury the elite enjoy and the rest of us should basically forget about. If that's what needs to happen, okay. And if that's what needs to happen, we should probably outlaw farmed salmon completely because right now we're expecting an awful lot of high-minded restraint on the part of the middle-class consumer.
What I resent is the casual assumption -- common in food literature -- that upgrading to wild salmon is even an option for most of us. It's not. You need money to have your clear conscience and your salmon too. About that I'm not at all confused.