On Lionfish

When the environment and a fish are at odds, what does a vegetarian do?

Omnivores seem to be under the impression that everyone who’s chosen not to eat meat for ethical or spiritual reasons is happy to eat anything offered to them, so long as it has no animal products. How does this perspective persist in 2021, when it’s been proven time and again that vegetarian and vegan food can be really good and really innovative? Why is the ascetic vegetarian or vegan still a stereotype? I’ve happily eaten a plain roasted sweet potato on Thanksgiving, of course, like any meat-eschewing person born into the settler-colonial United States, but that doesn’t mean I want the barest plate imaginable every day of my life. 

This feels absurd to even type here, because no one reading this who’s read anything I’ve written previously about food would think that I am that kind of person, and I would hope by extension that if you’re an omnivore reading this, you understand that even ethical vegetarians and vegans like to enjoy really delicious, well-seasoned food. I don’t know if Pete Wells of the New York Times is aware, though, as he published this line in his takedown of the new “plant-based” Eleven Madison Park: “Diners who don’t eat animals for religious or moral reasons will probably welcome the new menu.” An odd assumption, Mr. Wells. (I hadn’t been to EMP when it was omnivorous and haven’t been there now; the reviews and conversation around it are fascinating, however.)

Such assumptions suggest that there is no overlap in people’s reasons for not eating meat: One can not want any creature to die for their dinner while also being concerned with the environment, which Wells posits Eleven Madison Park is no longer truly being because they had already sourced all of their ingredients locally and well. And while I, in typical vegetarian fashion, would say there is no such thing as humane slaughter, I also know—as I’ve written before—that the conscientious omnivore is our best ally in destroying industrial animal farming (not tech meat, certainly not lab meat). So which is actually “better”: EMP doing by all accounts (public ones and private ones I’ve been lucky enough to receive) bad vegan fine dining or returning to a style of food that includes slaughter but supports a ton of local farmers? I don’t want anyone to die for my food, but I know which is actually a better choice—environmentally, economically, and in terms of cultural influence. 

My perspective doesn’t make me popular with vegans. For one, I’m an ex-vegan. I had started to have questions months before I actually gave up veganism after five years by eating oysters in a grief fog. It simply didn’t feel reasonable to me anymore; I didn’t understand how it could truly support local ecosystems and economies in the way that I wanted to do, that I thought was right for the future. The more I learned about agriculture, the more I understood animals’ significant role in it—the importance of working with them, toward common stewardship of the land. (I was reared on the Standard American Diet, and this extreme move toward veganism was necessary for me to better understand… everything, and it likely serves that function for many folks. More on that in the book.)

But I didn’t and don’t want anyone to die for my food, and I still find any condescending attitude toward animals’ sentience, intelligence, and personalities appalling. Being a locally minded vegetarian has been my compromise. I’m sure that to many this is intellectually incoherent, to which I’d offer that it’s not a purely intellectual choice. It’s not pure feeling, either, though, as many want to suggest. It’s complicated, and it would be nice to see more omnivores capable of acknowledging that.

I’ve been challenged lately by now being in the Caribbean, where the lionfish is an invasive species. My fiancé and I saw signs warning of their stings while we were on Culebra, a small island in the Puerto Rican archipelago. According to a video from National Geographic, they arrived from their native habitat in the Indo-Pacific to somewhere north of Miami in the mid-1980s and now wreak havoc on local waterways. Without a native predator in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, they gobble up everything in sight, including tiny reef fish who perform really important ecological purposes, such as excreting ammonium through their gills, which is essential for coral reef growth. Their disappearance is thus destroying reefs. As researcher Eric Johnson, a University of North Florida biologist, says, the best thing to do is to eat them—to create demand in supermarkets and at restaurants for this species, which provides ample work to local fishermen and can mitigate the lionfishes' impact on the ecosystem.

The issue of an invasive species is separate from real and big concerns around sustainable seafood. To understand the distinctions better, I talked to Jack Whalen, a sociologist and ethnographer who spent over a decade working with sustainable fisheries, to get an overview on the big issues. What he explained to me is that it’s about the method of fishing, whether it’s industrial or small scale, because in the former, there will be overfishing—so that the population doesn’t reproduce naturally and sufficiently—as well as other marine life getting caught up. Lionfish is caught by divers using spears.

“If you just want to use [industrial technology] without much real thinking about what the consequences are going to be other than short-term profitability, you can harvest a lot of fish but way more than the fishery can sustain in terms of its maximum sustainable yield,” Whalen tells me, “which would be how much can you catch with not just the stock that you're fishing but the whole ecology that lives there and breeds is maintained—not just survives, but continues to be healthy.” To make sure seafood has been sustainably farmed, he recommends Seafood Watch.

Recently, at a restaurant in San Juan, we were told they had lionfish ceviche on the menu and were specifically made aware of its status as an invasive species, and why it would be important to eat it. I told the server that yes, I would eat this, but my fiancé is allergic to fish. I felt virtuous in this moment, for some stupid reason, believing that I would put my spiritual qualms—because that’s what they are—about eating something with eyeballs that had once been alive aside in order to eat a ceviche to, like, save the reef. What a martyr! I eat oysters because they don’t have a nervous system and perform a critical ecological function; as many have said, they’re basically meat plants of the sea: Wouldn’t lionfish be basically the same, aside from the nervous system, given the significance of their detrimental effects on the reef and habitat for native fish? 

Later our friends arrived and ordered the ceviche, and I was actually faced with this task: I did not want to do it, yet I had made this claim—I wanted to believe that when push really came to shove, I would put the environment ahead of my vegetarianism. From all that I’ve read, eating this fish is the only way to curb its population. Pushing its consumption is a really significant gastronomic act. One concern was rational, urgent; the other, emotional.

I ate a little piece, felt sad in the soul, and simply slurped up a bit of the leche de tigre. I want to accommodate the world; I want to actively eat what needs to be eaten to maintain equilibrium in the ocean… but it’s strange and hard to do so after years without. I still feel very strongly that it’s violent while understanding why others would not feel that way. I understood why I rationally thought it made sense to eat the fish; I still could not eat it. “You can eat a whole piece,” my friend said, with a light tone of mockery. “I can’t,” I replied, frowning at my plate, then mumbling, “It was alive.”

But it can also be part of a sustainable and apparently delicious diet. Dr. Hari Pulapaka is both a math professor at Stetson University, a chef, and a cookbook author who only recently stepped away from the DeLand, Florida, restaurant Cress that he and his wife opened in 2008. He began serving it in 2013 as part of “lesser seafood” dinners, trying to get diners to eat sustainable but under-consumed types of fish. His suppliers brought the lionfish to his attention, and he’s used it in tacos, as a whole fried fish, in ceviche, and even as a lionfish bhel puri at the 2018 James Beard Awards.

“If anyone is even remotely interested in being a little bit more thoughtful about the food that they eat—leaving the vegetarian and vegan part aside—lionfish is really a great option, and they should support the divers who are working really hard to get this for the marketplace,” Pulapaka tells me. “And then understand that from the gastronomic point of view it is absolutely delicious. It's sweet, it's a mild-flavored white fish, semi-firm in texture, so it really doesn't look like a lot when you look at a filet of lionfish—it looks rather thin and flimsy, even less so than a flounder, actually. But when you cook it, it's really chef friendly, it’s home cook friendly, and it tastes really unique and different because it's not like another fish. It actually has a distinctive flavor.”

People are always bringing up different scenarios for me that they think might justify me eating a pork chop or a steak, and I try telling them that I don’t see meat as food anymore. You certainly couldn’t get me to eat a pig just because it was invasive, eating up everything in its path—even if this makes me a bad environmentalist. Theoretically, I would want to, I guess, just like the lionfish. But I wouldn’t be able to. This is simply where my brain can’t beat my heart. To get me to eat meat, or even a lionfish, you’d have to force-feed it to me through my tears and gritted teeth. I don’t know if I can change at this point, though I have found evidence of at least one vegan who eats lionfish for the sake of the environment, and for others, this has been a really significant moral qualm and topic of conversation in various forums. Maybe I’ll get over it—that’s a possibility.

It is interesting as I write to think that Saint Francis (an icon of mine whose Feast Day is today) is patron saint of both the environment and animals, supposedly advocating for both, because it brings us right to the lionfish question: What happens when one concern gets in the way of the other? When an animal is destroying the environment?

Well, we blame the humans, because it’s their fault this invasive species is even in the wrong ocean on the other side of the world (how that happened is still debated). And then, I suppose, the conscientious omnivores eat up as much lionfish as they can: their own portion, and another for the vegans and vegetarians who do their part in other ways, every day, because the habitable future of the planet is going to require all of us working together. It’s also going to require that the food taste good for everyone, because having an ethical or spiritual issue with eating animals shouldn’t mean a life of beets that taste like lemon Pledge, regardless of what our most prominent restaurant critic might think.

Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Rachel Signer, editor of the natural wine magazine Pipette, maker of Persephone Wines, and author of the new book You Had Me at Pét-Nat: A Natural Wine–Soaked Memoir. We discuss the definition of natural wine, how she remembered bottles she drank years ago in such detail, and how making natural wine has changed her writing on the subject.

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My fiancé Israel and I combined forces for a New York Times opinion piece on the history of exploitation and lack of support in agriculture in Puerto Rico. It was in print on Saturday. A really thrilling triumph for us!

A brief chat with Brad Esposito of Very Fine Day about my career and perspective.

Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico by Juan Villoro, because I’ll read any chronicle of a Latin American city. Please drop recommendations in the comments!

No clue. It’s hard to care right now, honestly. Too much work. Too much writing. Too much planning! You’ll find out why soon! Above are some roasted potatoes seasoned with sazón, chile, and smoked paprika. I tossed them with too much olive oil so they are really like fries.