FERN’s Friday Feed: The tragedy of the vaquita

Welcome to FERN’s Friday Feed (#FFF), where we share the stories from this week that made us stop and think.

The last days of the ‘panda of the sea’

Pacific Standard and FERN

Despite a last-ditch effort by a team of radical conservationists, the vaquita — a tiny porpoise that lives only in Mexico’s Gulf of California — is likely to go extinct, possibly sometime this year, reports Ben Goldfarb in FERN’s latest story, published with Pacific Standard. “Vaquitas, unfortunately, are collateral damage,” writes Goldfarb. “They share their habitat with a fish called the totoaba, a mammoth cousin of the sea bass whose swim bladders are a delicacy worth up to $100,000 per kilogram in mainland China and Hong Kong. Although totoaba fishing has been banned since 1975 — they, too, are critically endangered — poaching is rampant. Vaquitas, roughly the same size as totoabas, are prone to getting entangled and drowning in illegal nets.”

Anthony Bourdain: the piece that started it all

The New Yorker

In 1999, a little-known New York chef named Anthony Bourdain sent an essay about the life of a commercial cook in the big city, unsolicited, to The New Yorker. They published it. The piece became the basis for his best-selling memoir, Kitchen Confidential, that came out the next year. And the rest, as they say, is history. Bourdain reportedly died by suicide Friday, at age 61. Here’s a taste of the story that started it all: “Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits.” RIP.​

The problem with ‘authenticity’

Gravy (podcast)

Author Naben Ruthnum likens the way the South and southerners are thought of and written about by outsiders, to the way members of the South Asian diaspora are portrayed in what he calls “curry books” — as native strangers. “More often than not, readers come to these texts hoping to find a version of the exotic that is already familiar to them.” Food, he says, is a lens on both the actual complexity of a place, as well as the outsider’s need to generalize about that place. “We like knowing that what we’re eating is somehow authentic, especially if it’s supposed to represent a place.”

How the quest for perfect ketchup shaped America’s food system


Ketchup, America’s most ubiquitous condiment, traces its (tomato-less) roots to 17th-century China. But once U.S. industrialists, led by H.J. Heinz, began mass-producing the stuff in the late 19th century, ketchup became sweeter, tangier and redder, spurring a demand that “revolutionized the way food is grown, processed, and regulated” — as well as how that food tastes, writes Amy Bentley. “Innovations in tomato breeding and mechanical harvester technologies, driven in part by demand for the condiment, helped define modern industrial agriculture.”

Iceland’s volunteer glacier monitors


In “one of the longest-running examples of citizen climate science in the world,” volunteers in Iceland monitor the deterioration of the country’s glaciers. “Today, some 35 volunteers monitor 64 measurement sites around the country,” writes Gloria Dickie. “Vacancies for glacier monitors are rare and highly sought-after, and many glaciers have been in the same family for generations, passed down to sons and daughters … when the journey becomes too arduous for their aging watchmen.” But the rise of digital tracking may put these volunteers out of work.

Reviving South Africa’s food culture after apartheid


Despite South Africa’s growing popularity as a tourist destination, local cuisine is “conspicuously absent” from most hotspots. “South Africa’s culinary schools still focus largely on international cuisine, and the food sector remains largely white,” writes Andrea Teagle. “The underrepresentation of people of color reinforces a neglect of local cuisine and its potential for expansion…Without a new generation of South African chefs to revive them, flavors and important sources of nutrition that have simmered in the background of South African experience will slowly disappear.”

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