‘Every Bit of the Animal’ — A Maria Finn Q&A

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 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 and has written five books, including “The Whole Fish” and “Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home.” She writes for FERN and other outlets.

How did you get the idea to make tiles out of oyster shells? Had you seen other interesting uses for oyster shells?

I have used oyster shell tiles in my container garden; I use them as mulch that holds in moisture, looks good, and has a slow release fertilizer for Mediterranean plants. I’ve also used them ground up in the medium in my wall hanging indoor mushroom boxes. But I think the shells are so beautiful. To me, this is part of the pleasure of opening and eating oysters. I love their fractal texture and mother of pearl glimmer. For the tiles, I started off using ground up oyster shell with the cement, then saved the flattest pieces, or shattered them for the top of the tile. I worried about the strength with the ground up oyster shells, as handmade tiles are a lot of work, so I then went with just cement and the oysters for finishing them.

I hope to start a native oyster colony on the hull of my houseboat. Not so much to eat, but because each oyster cleans 50 gallons of water a day. And their colonies are so beautiful. Mussels are also great filters, and I just learned that the pace at which they open indicates the water quality/pollution in a bay. So I’m talking with some people at Autodesk about a future project of hooking up an LED light sculpture that connects to the mussels/oysters on my houseboat and the lights will indicate the bay’s water quality.

I see your work through the lens of using the whole animal or plant, often called ‘tail-to-snout’ eating. How much does avoiding waste play into your art, both practically and philosophically?

I’m author of the TED book, The Whole Fish: How Adventurous Eating of Seafood Will Make You Happier, Healthier and Help Save the Ocean. Much of this was inspired by the two years I worked monitoring the salmon run on the Yukon Delta for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. I spent a lot of time with Yupik women at their fish drying camps. They use every part of the salmon—even turn the male’s milt into a sort of Popsicle dipped in seal oil. Traditionally, they make lamps, bags, and other items out of salmon skin. I met the artist Emily Johnson at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She is Yupik, from Alaska, and also does this.

While an Artist-In-Residence (AIR) at Autodesk, I wrote an Instructables post on how to catch a salmon, and then break down a whole salmon. I created recipes on using the skin, head, bones, trim and every part of it—including salmon SPAM from the collar and belly. At the time, I was also making items for the renovation of my houseboat, so I thought I’d give the salmon skin lamp a try. Another artist there, Jennifer Berry, has been doing an art project on road kill, and is an experienced leather tanner. Eric Forman, a fellow AIR, was making light boxes. I collaborated with those two, and now have a very modern version of the Yupik salmon skin lamp. One of my neighbors is so excited by my salmon lamp; we are going to make more this salmon season. Hoping we catch them.

What other ways have you found for animal products that would otherwise go to waste? (salmon skin lamps, any others?) And do you think you’ll find creative uses for other animal products in the future?

I have some wonderful earrings made from polished cow bones by Haven Bourque. I’d love to see what these could be used for with interiors. I’ve been saving dye mushrooms for fabric for my living room and a current AIR at Autodesk, Andrea Blum is growing fabric from kombucha and making all natural, plant based dyes for it. I save coffee grounds for my mushroom boxes. It’s ambitious, but I might make milk paint and tint them with food waste or foraged plants. I’m also super inspired by the artist Phil Ross and his company Myco-works who are growing furniture and boards out of mushroom mycelium. I’d like to grow my bookshelves, but I may be too impatient for that.

I also have a bag of abalone shells and mussels and I’m thinking about what to do with them. I’m using the abalone shells as soap and sponge dishes for now. And I cleaned seaweed off the tie-off lines of my houseboat and made resin tiles from them. There’s an artist making lampshades from seaweed—I may try a version of this, though I’ve been warned the light might be too green. I also keep threatening to try and grow lampshades from salt crystals.

How did working on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska impact your philosophy on food and your life as an eater.

When I worked on fishing boats in Alaska, I loved a lot of it. The Pacific was always awe-inspiring and sometimes terrifying. Fishing helped me learn about the ocean and enter into a different way of living. There, the tides, the currents, the wind and storms dictate your life. But, I never loved killing animals. I always struggled with that, and still do to an extent. I do believe it’s important to go out and catch and kill my own fish. It helps me to enter into the natural world. It’s “free” as food once was for everyone, but I know the cost of my food, the work, the death of another creature, the time spent processing it. Herring are a pain to clean, but by going out and catching them each January, I’m among the sea lions and diving birds. I’m entering into the awe of the ocean, living a vital truth and I’m part of my ecosystem. And by doing this, I’m also a steward of it.

People often ask me if food from the SF Bay is okay to eat. My response is that if it isn’t, the bay needs to be cleaned. (I also swim at the Dolphin Club in San Francisco. We are in the bay year round, so the members are on the front line of oil spills and other pollutants.) The solution is not to import seafood. I make bottarga from the herring eggs, dredge and sauté the milt for a crostini, and when I pull up seaweed with eggs on it, I pickle this for salads. You can’t buy this stuff. I invite friends over for fresh grilled herring, and pickle the rest of sour cream, onions and dill. It’s the best bartering chip ever.

How much was bycatch an issue? Any estimates on what percentage of the catch was thrown back dead?

In salmon fishing in Alaska, bycatch is very low, almost non-existent. It’s really a gold standard in sustainable seafood. The boats and nets are pretty small, and we fish right in front of the streams the salmon are returning to. Each stream has Fish & Game workers monitoring the escapement and only allowing fishermen to catch the salmon when there are enough up the river to spawn. In a three-month season, I think we caught 2 sculpins and 3 sand sharks—all were returned to the water alive. In a fluke, we caught one halibut and ate that for dinner.

Halibut longlining is a different story. When I was fishing there, all the commercial boats went out for 2 days the whole year, once in the spring and once in the fall.  The boats were only allowed to keep and sell halibut, so millions of grey cod and black cod that were hooked and hauled up from the deep went back into the sea dead. I was 22 and from the Midwest and knew nothing about fishing, but was appalled by the bycatch and couldn’t believe Fish & Game allowed that to go on. I told the fishermen I’d take their black cod bycatch. I smoked a lot of it and it was amazing. Due to bycatch, they changed to an IFQ, or Individual Fishing Quota, so there’s one quota each year, and all boats have a percentage of the quota based on their prior catch shares.  They can fish halibut year round and also sell their grey cod and black cod. This sounded like a good solution, but the shares went to boat owners, not the captains or deckhands, so they lost out, and many of the quota share owners sold it to big companies. So a few corporations now own this public resource. Some areas are trying to create cooperatives with IFQ so a small fleet can go out.

On the subject of bycatch, the Pollock trawlers in Alaska are allowed more halibut bycatch than the statewide quota for the rest of the fishermen. I believe this year’s allowable halibut bycatch was 4.5 million pounds. The Pollock trawlers have allowable bycatch for king salmon on the Bering Sea, while the natives, like those on the Yukon Delta I worked with, are no longer allowed to fish for them. So I would argue that even though the MSC certified Pollock as sustainable, they are still very problematic. California halibut are caught with hook-and-line; fishermen make less money, but these are pretty much bycatch free.

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?

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 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 “road kill” 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 farmer’s 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.

What can we as a culture and us as individuals do to remedy that disconnect? (Easier said than done, especially if one doesn’t live floating in the sea)

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 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. (I’m also the author of the book, A Little Piece of Earth: How to Grow Your Own Food in Small Spaces.) 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 x 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 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. I work for a Community Supported Fishery called 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 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.

Finally, what are your top 5 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?

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 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, has a lovely delicate texture and mild, sweet flavor. I love salmon. King and sockeye salmon are beautiful, they are like the super models of the sea, but the less beautiful pink and keta salmon are great, less expensive options. Black cod AKA sablefish also isn’t a pretty fish, but is rich and oily-and has twice the omega-3’s of salmon. It’s an excellent choice instead of imported Chilean Seabass.

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

Avoid farmed salmon. These are fed pellets made from wild forage fish like anchovies and sardines. For each pound of farmed salmon, it takes 3 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.

This Q&A is a crosspost also running on Food Tank. Check out that site for all of your sustainable food needs.

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