Maria Finn: Rethinking Our Relationship with Art, Food, and the Sea

From by Jonathan Bloom
Maria Finn: Rethinking Our Relationship with Art, Food, and the Sea

Maria Finn is an author, journalist, and artist. While she was an Autodesk Artist in Residence in late 2014, she set out to change our perception of food and food waste. Following an evening spent shucking oysters, she found herself faced with a mountain of shells. Instead of discarding them, she created beautiful oyster-shell tiles that now line the backsplash of her kitchen. Her philosophy of “waste not, want not” extends to her work foraging and wildcrafting in the San Francisco Bay, and her at-home holistic food preparation, using every bit of the animal. Finn recently completed a novel, Sea Legs & Fish Nets, based loosely on her experience working on an all-female fishing boat in Alaska. She is the author of five other books, including A Little Piece of Earth and Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home. She writes for FERN and other publications.

Part two of the interview follows; click here for part one.

Food Tank (FT): In your Wildcrafting SF by Sea project, you talk about our disconnect from the sea. What do you reckon have been the major causes of that disconnect?

Maria Finn (MF): Nature is a part of our everyday lives, whether we know it or not. Architecture, music, landscaping is all nature-inspired. Our sense of beauty and rhythm comes from the natural world. Food is our most direct and vital connection to nature. My grandfather was a farmer in Minnesota and he said that they always ate seasonally—vegetables and fruit in the summer, meat in the winter, as they had no refrigeration and he grew up during the Depression. My parents’ generation was that of canned cream of mushroom soup and Jell-O. They lived in a city and my parents both worked. They cooked all our meals, but we did have things like powdered milk. Processed foods became available and easy, and no one knew of the unintended consequences to our health and environment. (And women were entering the work force, so they just didn’t have time to raise chickens.) Cold climates need food shipped in during the winter.

A friend of mine in Brooklyn described her winter shares of the CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] as “the Gulag”—big knotty potatoes and kale. When I lived in Alaska, the food in grocery stores was really expensive and half-rotted due to shipping. So we harvested wild food as much as possible, froze and smoked what we could. There was a “roadkill” list, and if anyone hit a moose with their car, if your name was next on the list, you went out and butchered the moose and ate it. The town I lived in, Homer, AK, has a lot of greenhouses growing produce year-round and a great farmers market.

And for some reason, many people hate the idea of dirt on their vegetables, and heads and bones in their fish. During our processed foods era, so many of us lost the skills of cleaning fish, breaking down chickens, and growing vegetables. But these are real money-savers. People call organic and sustainable food expensive, but I think boxes of crackers and cereal are really expensive.

FT: What can we as a culture and as individuals do to remedy that disconnect? (Which may be easier said than done, especially if one doesn’t live floating in the sea.)

MF: In my wildcrafting project, I give instructions for everything from making your own salt from seawater to catching crabs. These activities get you to the water. You have to take the time to do it, even just one day a year. You interact and connect with the natural world, and every time you use that salt, or taste the seafood, you have a memory of the wonderful day spent at the beach.

I am very lucky to have a herring run out[side] my kitchen door and wild mushrooms growing under oak trees 10 minutes from my house. But I’m also a big advocate of growing your own food, even if it’s just an herb planter in your windowsill. I have a lot of small planters on my houseboat, so if I come home tired from work, I cut a few pieces of kale, some mushrooms from my boxes, boil soba noodles, grate herring bottarga over it. It’s as fast as anything from a box…. From an indoor lemon tree to a raised bed garden in an urban community spot, gardening gets your hands in the earth and makes you a part of the natural process. There will be birds, bees, and ladybugs, and the bad ones too—snails and slugs.

When I was going to graduate school in New York, I had a gardening business, and we installed a tiny terrace garden in Brooklyn for a friend of mine. It was about 6 by 12 feet, and still, we certified it as Wildlife Friendly. We made super chic containers and planted them with natives that provided protection and food for birds. We had edibles in there, a solar fountain, and a bat box. My friend’s boyfriend was super skeptical; after we finished, it was his favorite room in the whole apartment. In the summer, they could have their coffee or cocktails out there. It smelled wonderful, and they’d eat handfuls of serviceberries growing on the tree. (Unfortunately, no bats have taken residence.)

As for seafood, try to go fishing—a trout stream, a lake, a shore, the ocean. Get wet and dirty and tired. Take stewardship of it: volunteer for your local baykeeper or riverkeeper, and be a citizen scientist. People say they’re too busy; but if that’s the case, you could probably use of dose of nature more than anyone. Kids love this stuff more than anyone. When my nieces and nephews visit, foraging and catch[ing] crabs are their favorite activities. My nephew Casey caught a striped bass in the bay—these are invasive and delicious. We made fish tacos for the whole family. He was so proud. My nephews Emiliano and Cuauhtemoc came out for Thanksgiving and we foraged chanterelles and caught rock crabs. We made risotto from these for Thanksgiving dinner. They had great stories.

If you can’t do this, buy your seafood as close to the source as possible, from the fishermen, a farmers market or CSF [Community Supported Fishery]. I work for a Community Supported Fishery, Real Good Fish, and each week, we buy direct from fishermen who have caught exactly what we need. The long, tangled international food chain for seafood that results in tremendous waste is gone. Our seafood is fresh and pristine. We have a Bay2Tray program that gets grenadier, the bycatch from the local black cod fishery, into local public school lunches in very popular fish tacos. These are replacing processed fish sticks, usually made from Bering Sea [Alaska] Pollock. We sell our bones to Kitchen Witch Bone Broth to make stock from, and fish heads to local organic farmers. Our members know who caught the fish, how, and when. They know if it’s too stormy for the boats to go out, they’ll get local oysters instead. They get tips on preparing the diverse seafood. Our members are so great: they send us back pictures of how they confit anchovies or used the roe in the spot prawns.

FT: Finally, what are your top five seafood items where an ugly exterior belies an inner, delicious beauty—what are the ugly tomatoes of the sea? Any obscure ones most people wouldn’t think about eating?

MF: The idea of “trash fish” is becoming trendy with some chefs and there have been a lot of articles about it. This is great, but I wish they’d stop calling it this. It should be called “fishermen’s meal” as fishermen often eat the bycatch. One fisherwoman I know from Alaska, Mary Jacobs, used to cook up the livers from pink salmon for dinner and sell the rest. (Her crew eventually revolted against that.) But traditionally, what fishermen can’t sell because consumers don’t recognize it, they eat. There’s a wonderful variety of seafood out there people don’t know about. When I’m foraging for mussels, I often take gooseneck barnacles as well. These look like giant witch claws, but are very tasty. Nori on the rocks isn’t so pretty, but fresh nori is so much better than the processed sheets of it. On the flip side, sea urchins are beautiful, but the [edible interior], uni, not so much. The grenadier we use in our Bay2Tray program is cosmetically challenged and unfortunately also called “ratfish.” It would be tough to sell this whole, but filleted, [it] has a lovely delicate texture and mild, sweet flavor. I love salmon. King and sockeye salmon are beautiful—they are like the supermodels of the sea—but the less beautiful pink and keta salmon are great, less expensive options. Black cod, a.k.a. sablefish, also isn’t a pretty fish, but is rich and oily—and has twice the omega-3 [fatty acids] of salmon. It’s an excellent choice instead of imported Chilean sea bass.

A few more notes about food waste in the seafood world from Finn:

  • Avoid farmed salmon. These are fed pellets made from wild forage fish like anchovies and sardines. For each pound of farmed salmon, it takes three pounds of wild-caught fish. Spend a little more on wild, or buy the collars, bellies, eggs and other less costly parts of the wild salmon.
  •  For fish oil supplements, get ones made from wild salmon, like Vital Choice. These are made with the heads of the salmon caught in Alaska; the ones made from forage fish can be devastating to marine environments.
  • It’s much better to eat the sardines and anchovies instead of farmed salmon. My favorite canned brand is Wild Planet.
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