Monday, October 24, 2005

Fish trends through the ages

If oyster history is your thing, Wednesday could be the closest you’ll ever come to a Ken Burns-style retrospective. Marine biologists—known to the irreverent as fish heads—will be gathering that day in the Danish town of Kolding to review what restaurant menus from the last 150 years can tell us about the price and availability of shell and fin-fish during the last century and a half.

Glenn Johns, a paleo-oceonographer (i.e., an archeological fish head) affiliated with Texas A&M, has been reviewing more than 200,000 menus unearthed from as far back as the days Millard Fillmore was making a name for himself. The bills of fare were found in libraries, historical-society collections, and the archives of culinary institutes, according to Johns. The professor and his research associates noted the prices of various species on the bills of fare, as well as when certain seafoods began appearing as restaurant choices. For instance, Johns reportedly found few mentions of lobster prior to 1880, when the image of the crustacean changed from trash fish to delicacy. Not coincidentally, he noted, the price also rose at that time.

But it’s a matter of what came first, the lobster or the cachet. Did the price rise because of a pop in demand, or did more people want to try it because it was marketed as an indulgence, with a price to match?

It’s the contention of Jones and his colleagues that a higher price connotes something exclusive and ritzy, and hence carries a powerful allure for people who can stretch to afford it.

Although the results of Jones’ work have not yet been disclosed, he has released a few teasers for the benefit of the media and the attendees of the gathering in Denmark. “I report here on the first attempt at using restaurant menus to reconstruct changes in the retail costs and regional/temporal usage of seafood throughout the coastal United States from the 1850s to the present day,” Jones writes in a preview of his presentation. He notes that he’ll be hitting it all—“invertebrate, demersal and pelagic species.”

That's Danish, right?

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