How Americans came to love the lowly tuna

Canned tuna are pictured as a man shops at grocery store in Fairfax, Va.

Image of American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food (California Studies in Food and Culture)
Author: Andrew F. Smith
Publisher: University of California Press (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 264 pages

Right now Americans eat more shrimp than any other seafood, but it was only a few years ago that tuna was on top. We still consume nearly 30 percent of the world's canned tuna, which is primarily albacore and skipjack.

Several different species of tuna migrate in the waters off the U.S. There's plenty of it around. But you might be surrpised to learn that we've only liked tuna for about a hundred years. Why?

To answer that question, we turned to Andrew F. Smith, a culinary historian and the author of the new book, "American Tuna, the Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food."

Tuna was an improbable food until the turn of the 20th century. The enormous bluefin tuna was a popular game fish, but also seen as a predator that gobbled up all the other fish in a net. Meanwhile, other types of tuna -- like albacore and skipjack -- were easier to catch, but seen as oily and unpleasant until canneries in San Pedro figured out how to package, and market, the leanest parts of the fish.

And tuna salad? Smith says Americans believed the marketing efforts that boasted, "It tastes like chicken!"

Voila!  The dieter's lunch staple was born.

Kai Ryssdal: We eat -- Americans, that is -- eat almost 30 percent of all the canned tuna consumed on the entire planet. That's a whole lot of tuna salad, sure, but it's also a good point of departure to talk about how we came to eat tuna in the first place. 'Cause it's only been about a hundred years that tuna's been popular as a food. Andrew F. Smith is a culinary historian and the author of "American Tuna." Thanks for being here.

Andrew F. Smith: It's a joy to be here.

Ryssdal: Let me go to the subtitle actually first: "The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food." Why so improbable? It's a handsome fish, it tastes good. What's the problem?

Smith: That's what us Americans think today, but 150 years ago virtually no one in the United States or Canada ate tuna.

Ryssdal: Because why?

Smith: The bluefin tuna were extremely large. It can be up to 1,500 pounds and they were very hard to catch with the equipment that they had. With the smaller tuna, albacore for instance, they were an oily fish. And when you cooked their red flesh, it turned into an unappetizing brown color as they reported in the 19th century.

Ryssdal: How then did we get from that to grocery store aisles filled with more tuna than you can shake a stick at and also sushi restaurants serving really expensive raw fish?

Smith: The tuna-canning industry, they figured out a way to get the oil out of the fish. In the midst of this, they said we've got a good product here, but no one knows what this is. So they said it tastes like chicken.

Ryssdal: Did they?

Smith: They did. So virtually every tuna canner jumped on the wagon and although only one major brand is Chicken of the Sea, they all use the chicken as a means of promoting it. It was low cost, high protein. World War I came along, other protein sources were rationed, and all of a sudden everyone started eating it.

Ryssdal: Are we over-fishing tuna? Are we going to run out like we have cod and so many other fish?

Smith: The best estimates are 80 percent of the Atlantic bluefin have disappeared in the last 40 years. And the likelihood of bluefin tuna either in the Atlantic or the Pacific, making it under current conditions is relatively low. This January a single bluefin tuna sold for $736,000. A single fish. Lots of special reasons for that, but the point is any fisherman who's got a chance to catch a bluefin -- regardless of the restrictions that are on it -- are going to do it. But with the albacore and the skipjack, they're plentiful and there is no stress on those populations, so it just depends on the species that we're talking about.

Ryssdal: If I go down the street from our studios here in L.A. to Little Tokyo in Japantown, and go to an upscale sushi restaurant, what are the odds that the tuna I have there will have been caught in Japan and air freighted over here? It's probably pretty high, right?

Smith: No, relatively low. The tuna goes in the opposite direction. We have tuna fishing here in Long Island and when a boat comes in that's got tuna on it, there's a representative of the Japanese tuna industry that checks out the tuna. If it's accepted, within 24 hours it's in Japan.

Ryssdal: Andrew F. Smith, his book is called "American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food." Andrew, thanks a lot.

Smith: Thank you very much for inviting me.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.
Image of American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food (California Studies in Food and Culture)
Author: Andrew F. Smith
Publisher: University of California Press (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 264 pages


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