Monday, February 25, 2008

A Charming Evening

There comes a time in every young sellout's life when he has to keep his dress pants on (in this case it happened to be my nicest pair of Carhartt's) and remain on his best behaviour long after the five o'clock whistle blows on a Friday afternoon. Dinner with the boss is an inevitable - if often enjoyable - rite of passage in office culture, and so it was with a calm degree of acceptance that I ventured to my director's home on Friday night to dine with some guests who were in town for a conference.

When I heard that Arctic char - a local favourite harvested right out of Great Slave Lake - was on the menu, I had a bit of a dilemma on my hands. I have been a vegetarian (eating dairy products and eggs but not fish) for the better part of seven years, and save for a couple of errant nibbles at the Thanksgiving table have adhered fairly strictly to the diet in that time. My rationale for going vegetarian was, and has remained, the strain that commercialized meat production puts on the environment (I won't get on the soap-box here, but many of my reasons can be found in this recent New York Times article), and therein lay my dilemma. Would it not be hypocritical of me to abstain from eating fish fresh out of a lake a few hundred metres away, when I eat produce on a daily basis that is flown in from across the continent? Under the auspices of my environmental beliefs, I found it hard to rationalize the latter while dismissing the former.

And so the char was tasty. Not "holy crap, I can't believe I haven't been eating meat for the past several years" tasty, but enjoyable nonetheless. I found the crunchy part on the bottom to be the most flavourful piece, but refrained from finishing it after looking at the other plates on the table and figuring out that the "crunchy part on the bottom" was actually the skin, which one isn't meant to eat. A bit of a faux pas, but it was still pretty enjoyable thanks to my boss's husband's barbequing skills.

I've reflected on the meal over the past few days, and have come to accept that my lifestyle choice may make good ecological sense in Victoria, but is largely unsustainable and completely counter-productive in Yellowknife, where a localized vegetarian diet simply isn't possible in the Winter. To that end, I think that my rationale in taking the carnivorous plunge is a telling illustration of the importance of not uniformly superimposing Southern conventions and ideals onto a Northern setting. The climate and the culture up here interact to create a physical and human landscape that is drastically different than anything commonly seen in the provinces, and contradictions like my fish debate don't stop with what one naive idealist chooses to have for dinner. Looking at any issue that affects the North - be it climate change, loss of traditional land, alcohol abuse, whatever - through a globalized or even nationalized lens is dangerous and incredibly short-sighted. In fact, it makes about as much sense as thinking that jet-lagged Florida oranges are a better environmental choice than fresh-from-the-lake Yellowknife char.

And next time, I'll know not to eat the crunchy part.



Edit (March 4/08) to add: It has since been brought to my attention that the char I ate probably came from the ocean. My bad. Still, though, that makes it a whole lot more local than most everything else that is available to eat up here at this time of year. It has also been pointed out (thanks, Lou) that one can, in fact eat the skin, and it's strictly a matter of personal choice, rather than social convention. Now I wish I'd finished it.


Care said...

You don't sound like a "naive idealist" to me. You sound like a thoughtful idealist who is aware of the reasons behind his ideals and what practical steps should be taken to achieve them. I'd say that's much more admirable than being a puritan for its own sake. It all depends on your reasons - I have some residual hesitation when it comes to suffering of the individual animals being eaten (more so if raised in inhumane conditions than if caught in the wild) but...people tell me it's pretty quick and painless for the fish. ;-) Glad to hear you're getting to fully indulge (so to speak) in the culture. I had haggis in Scotland...not quite the same was just the only thing the bar was serving. :-)

Hartamophone said...

Thanks, Care.

While my roots as a vegetarian are firmly planted in the environmental arena, it has definitely come to encompass some concerns about the suffering of the animals. It would have been a different story if we were talking about farmed fish.

Micah C said...

I second what Care said. It's great to see people take a rational and contextual approach to assessing their food choices, rather than sticking strictly to -isms.

Arctic char is in the "least concern" category of IUCN's red list of endangered species - so overfishing is clearly not an issue. Additionally, the Monterey Bay folks have it listed as one of the ecologically best seafood choices you can make, although they refer only to farmed Arctic char (apparently they are farmed inland, enclosed in a responsible manner - although whether any predator-farming is smart or sustainable is debatable).

PS: I always eat the skin on salmon when it's grilled - it's the best part. Maybe char is different?

Hartamophone said...

Yeah, over-fishing definitely isn't an issue. Great Slave Lake fishermen are a dying breed, and the number of fish pulled from the lake each year is now way below the allowable sustainable quota. Thanks for the research, Micah.

And yeah, I thought the skin was the best part, too, but since nobody else ate it, I don't think I was supposed to.

David said...

I don't know if Char is some kind of special fish, but you can generally eat the skin of BBQ fish or any cooked fish really - I had baked Salmon the other day and ate the skin - it's purely a personal choice decision. Also, good man for not being a slave to your veggie roots.

Hartamophone said...

Thanks, David. Glad to know I might not be such a clueless Southerner after all.

Just out of curiosity, which David are you?

Lou said...

As one who has prepared Char many a-time, I would suggest that skin consumption is absolutely acceptable, if not, in my opinion, necessary. I consider myself a trained professional.

David said...

David = The tallest Dave you know.

Micah C said...

tic toc Hart. I have nothing to read except law books.