Dreaming of seafood on United Airlines flight 881

A 12-hour flight is certainly a unique space. To my left are young school children flopped over and deep in sleep. All around me, in darkness, passengers sleep or absorb themselves in a movie appearing on a tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of them. Pan to me, reading an anthropological piece about the interconnectedness of physical market processes and national culinary trends. Okay, I’m not just reading it for fun. This chapter, “Wholesale Sushi: Culture and Commodity in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market” by Theodore C. Bestor, was our designated reading to do during the flight. But it was a fun read.

Returning to the anthropological and sociological sides of historical and contemporary events is always enjoyable as I think it is a useful way for me to collect broad, sometimes abstract thoughts about history and bring them to a human scale. By that, I don’t mean that ideas and concepts in history can’t exist on a human scale, just that viewing events and processes through anthropological eyes shows how these things impact people individually, and people as groups.

I’ll get into some specifics now. Bestor’s main ideas depend on analyzing Japanese culinary concepts on two levels: one at the Tsukiji fish market, where wholesalers flock to bid for the best fish they can get, brought in from around the globe; and one in which people’s ideas of what seafood is – where it comes from, how it looks, how it’s produced, etc. – drive market patterns. I particularly liked one example, perhaps because it hits close to home. He mentions sea urchin roe, an important part of Japanese seafood cuisine. Hokkaido and Maine fisheries supply Tsukiji with sea urchin roe, although one can’t always be sure of a particular batch of roe’s origin. This is because sea urchin roe that arrives from Maine in Hokkaido is repackaged, labeled as though it originated from Hokkaido, then sent down to Tokyo for market sale. Bestor attributes this activity to the larger trend that recognizes domestic seafood as having higher quality and thus higher value.

I don’t know if there is an actual difference in the quality between Hokkaido and Maine sea urchin roe, but there is a cultural standard that puts more stock in domestic seafood, thus the incentive to alter the point of origin on the packaging. Seafood acts as a medium of communication and connection between Japan and the rest of the world, but it also serves as a defining (or defined) factor of cultural production. Tomorrow, I will venture to Tsukiji with the rest of the cohort to observe the fish market and hopefully we will put together some concrete impressions to ground the more conceptual ideas from the reading.