A simple truth of sushi is that it tends to involve fish. A second simple truth is that, before they were nigiri or maki, these fish were living, breathing creatures. Strangely, this latter axiom seems to pass unnoticed all too often.
Luckily, we have Gayle to remind us.
Gayle Wheatley is a well-known artist based in the Los Angeles area. She is supremely talented and works in an impressive array of media, including oil on canvas, illustration, and graphic design. Her work is displayed in numerous exhibitions and galleries around the world, and much of it has been snapped up by art collectors who lamentably discovered her before I did.
Gayle spent two years living in Japan, and I’m guessing that this is at least part of what has inspired her to use sushi imagery in her work. What interests me about Gayle’s art is her uncanny ability to depict the connection between sushi and life.
I often find myself waxing on ad naseum about this subject: fish are alive. Until they die, that is. Or we kill them.
This in itself isn’t a problem for me; rather, I’m concerned by the dubious understanding that we have of this connection on a subconscious level. Consciously, sure, we know the sashimi on our plate is fish… but do we stop and think about how it was a fish, as well?
Picture this: you walk into your favorite sushi restaurant. You order hamachi. You wait a few minutes, maybe savoring a steaming cup of green tea or sipping Sapporo from a pilsner glass. A moment passes and a modest but smiling server approaches your table, places a small wooden block before you, and vanishes. On the block, resting softly on a shizo leaf, are two loosely-molded lumps of rice topped with a couple of pieces of a rich, cream-colored flesh with light veins of red and pink streaking through it. It is a beautiful dish, rich in its simplicity, evoking thoughts of freshness, purity, and delight.
What it doesn’t make us think of is a fish.
Hamachi is a staple in the US sushi industry, but it is exceedingly rare in other sectors of our seafood landscape. You won’t find hamachi at your local Safeway, WalMart, or Kroger; nor will you see one resting in the crushed ice of a high-end independent urban seafood market. In fact, outside of a sushi bar, most Americans will never encounter a hamachi at all.
Which means most sushi-goers have no idea what the living fish actually looks like.
I find that it’s difficult to connect with something of which I have no tangible or visual appreciation, and fish are no exception. These gaps between us and the animals that we consume allow us to feed upon them with less regard for what they once were. Harmful fishing practices, filthy farming conditions, and even the ugly faces and off-putting monikers of particular fish are hidden to foster our ability to purchase in blissful ignorance at the point of sale. Why else would merchants decide to change the name of the Patagonian toothfish to the Chilean seabass? Or market the slimehead as “orange roughy”?
(Speaking of that, have you ever seen a whole, head-on Chilean seabass displayed in a fish counter? No? Maybe it’s because they look like this.)
This is a point of concern for me. In my view, it is missing the point to work towards sustainability in the fish industry if we do not reconcile our eating habits with the fact that fish are living creatures, not an amorphous commodity. As long as we continue to to treat these animals as less than that (farming them in unsuitable conditions, filling them with drugs and dyes, devastating their habitat with destructive fishing gear, etc.), we will continually find ourselves struggling to reach sustainability.
Gayle has managed to use sushi to portray these undersea organisms as the vivacious, mysterious, beating-heart marvels that they are. Her vibrant, almost monstrous depictions of the animals “behind the sushi” strikes a chord with me. Salmon roe sport teeth, similar to those they would have developed had they been allowed to hatch and mature. A clutch of eels writhe and squirm against a nori yoke, struggling mightily to escape a hackneyed kabeyaki fate. Cold- or warm-blooded, exo- or endo-skeletal, shelled or scaled, pelagic or benthic… it makes no difference. Gayle’s work ably demonstrates that all of the ocean’s inhabitants merit our reverence, as does the amazingly complex ecosystem that they compose.
It’s not about refusing to eat fish. It’s about bringing our awareness of what we are actually eating to the table. Once the information is present, we can make defensible decisions as to what is right for us as individuals. We can clearly delineate for ourselves what we will and will not consume. This kind of consumption works in harmony with our own personal ethics, and I promise, fish tastes so much better that way.