There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In The Zen of Fish, on the other hand, Corson mentions the sushi supply chain only in passing. His narrative smartly flips back and forth between students and faculty at the California Sushi Academy, known for supplying neophyte chefs to sushi bars nationwide, and rich histories of the cuisine and the fish that comprise it. Where Issenberg teaches that contemporary sushi is an improvement on a fish-fermenting process that originally took a year, Corson (author of 2004’s The Secret Life of Lobsters) revels in the gooey texture of that dish, its almost cheesy flavor so appealing to feudal Japanese.
Like sushi apprentices, we learn first about the rice, how the earliest sushi chefs believed each grain hosted seven gods, how American-style inside-out rolls, rice on the outside, calm our discomfort with nori, the crunchy seaweed that holds them together. Then, the condiments—soy sauce from vegetarian Buddhists who discovered its magical umami, or meatlike, flavor, and wasabi, which is virtually never real wasabi—and on to the many fish and mollusks served as nigiri or sashimi. As Zen’s characters struggle to internalize this rainbow of ingredients, so do we.
The characters help set the book apart: Kate Murray, a wayward tomboy who finds confidence behind the sushi bar; Toshi Sugiura, the Academy’s colorful founder; and Takumi Nishio, an aging Japanese pop star on an endearing quest for culinary perfection. But Zen shines because Corson so artfully conveys his research—scientific, economic, historical, and cultural, in a blend leagues beyond Issenberg’s stylistic hiccups.
The difference is clear when you compare each author’s account of sushi’s origins. Both ultimately paint sushi as a kind of artful fast food made popular by changing tastes and economies over several centuries. Issenberg quickly highlights sushi’s innovation: “What the world now knows as sushi began as a street snack in Edo-era Tokyo, fast food well over a century before that term was ever applied to hamburgers, fries, and shakes.”
Corson allows sushi’s story to unfold over a much longer timeline: “About 140,000 years ago, people in what is now Japan probably ate a lot of roasted elephant. After the earth’s climate shifted, they switched to acorns, which was surely a step down… .In those days, the closest thing a Japanese person had to sushi was probably a strip of tuna jerky wrapped around an acorn.”
For a book ostensibly about the market forces that shape sushi consumption, Issenberg’s Economy doesn’t clue the reader into what’s so magical about the food like Zen does—on almost every page.
The central icon of both books is tuna, specifically the bluefin, whose fatty belly is suited to new worldwide tastes. Economy literally revolves around the species, following it from ocean to boat to market to distributor to restaurant in increasingly small, increasingly overpriced portions. (The book even features a lipstick-red slice of tuna nigiri on the cover.) “In the sushi system,” Issenberg writes, “tuna is the trophy fish: the most demanded by diners, the one that is tested as a benchmark of a restaurant’s merit.” This “diamond of the ocean” is for many diners “a piece of fish that is, on a per-pound basis, the most expensive food they have ever consumed.” Clearly, Issenberg sees tuna as central to the health of the global sushi market.
Corson, in contrast, honors the living, breathing animal itself. In the fittingly titled chapter “Final Fish,” he sings a paean to the bluefin, a rare warm-blooded fish—a distinction that means the bluefin can “swim faster, see better, digest more food, and react more quickly than other fish.” Presumably it tastes better, too. Because it’s warm-blooded, the tuna also presents a unique challenge to the conscientious chef. Corson explains that bluefin “epitomize the fundamental contradiction of serving raw fish. If the meat doesn’t age long enough, it won’t develop sufficient taste. But once rigor mortis is past, the meat rapidly loses firmness and texture.” Corson’s bluefin demands respect both in life and in death.
This tuna obsession points to both books’ shared flaw. Economy, especially, mystifies because it so readily admits the sushi economy can’t account for the vagaries of nature but treats those vagaries as minor disturbances with an almost willful ignorance of nature’s boundaries. Specifically: the ocean’s tuna stocks, which researchers say are due to collapse within a half-century unless people curb their voracious sushi appetites.
Issenberg’s hagiology of the sushi “trust” system isn’t entirely unfounded—economists generally support the idea that today’s market distributes risk among all players. But he ignores a crucial element of interconnectivity, one which Barry C. Lynn explored in his marvelous 2005 book, End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation. Disasters once had only local effects, but today’s mishaps—earthquakes near Taiwanese industrial parks, Texas factory fires, or the collapse of Atlantic tuna stocks—resonate worldwide. If we’re all working together to efficiently snatch tuna from a finite ocean, we’re all going to suffer when they disappear. Issenberg has no answer for this possibility, because he never explores it to begin with.
Zen, in its treatment of human desire for sushi, at least indirectly gets at why tuna stocks are so hard-hit. Corson cites Kanoko Okamoto’s short story “Sushi,” in which customers “escape themselves and the worries of their daily lives. The chef remembers what each…likes to eat and in what order.” It’s the perfect fusion of food and art, of need and want. Few foods are so easy to fetishize, and few taste so distinctive. And, Corson reminds us, it all seems so healthy, salty soy and fatty tuna be damned.
Seafood’s future is a question of grave import for sushi connoisseurs and businessmen alike. If only either author, so obviously moved by the wonder of sushi’s unique place in our complex world, had taken a stab at it. Maybe a solution is coming. For now, the Koreans at Adam Express will continue making sushi—which not so long ago was unavailable outside Japan—for anyone in Mount Pleasant with $3 to spend.