It was easy for me to be opposed to the eating of shark fin soup; it wasn't part of my culture, I'd seen the outrageous photos of rotting, de-finned shark carcasses and the very idea of eating cartilage made me queasy.
One of our shop clients (and a good friend) is associated with WildAid, an organization devoted to the preservation of wildlife around the world. (See their PSA campaign here - it's amazing.) WildAid's latest initiative is a ban on the sale of shark fins in California. A pair of legislators (one of whom is Chinese) is sponsoring the bill in spite of strong opposition from the Chinese community - especially the restaurant lobby.
Why does the restaurant lobby care so much? Shark fin soup can fetch up to $85 a bowl and is the de facto delicacy for big celebrations. It dates back to the Ming Dynasty and represents millions in revenue.
But we need sharks to keep fish populations healthy and many shark species are now threatened with extinction. The more I learned about shark finning, the more certain I was that I would never, ever, under any circumstances, may lightning strike me dead, eat shark fin soup.
Yesterday we were invited to the 70th birthday party of another client who has also become a good friend. His party was held at Koi Palace, one of our favorite restaurants. Their dim sum is divine and their fish is spectacular. Try the chicken feet, Xav says they're very good.
When we entered the restaurant I saw a sign behind the register that informed visitors of the restaurant's opposition to AB 376. I wasn't surprised, given the revenue at stake, this is part of their livelihood. We were shown to a private room and presented with an amazing feast. Suckling pig. The most tender abalone I've ever tasted. Peking duck. Lobster.
And then, in the middle of the meal, a simple bowl of soup.
I shouldn't have been surprised but I was. After all, it was his 70th birthday - a big occasion. All of his family was there, we were celebrating something special.
I stared at the bowl in front of me and exchanged looks with Xav. Our host confirmed our suspicions and we were face to face with a moral dilemma. We disapproved of the soup, to eat it would be to contribute to the killing of more sharks. To not eat it would be unpardonably rude to our friend and an inappropriate public statement.
Xav ruefully picked up a spoon and said "well, it's already dead, it would be a waste not to eat it." Which is also correct I suppose, but didn't make me feel any better.
With my friend looking at me (smiling and happy) from across the table, I picked up my spoon and had a tentative sip. As I looked around for lightning, my first reaction (in my head) was "Why is this soup so popular? It tastes totally ordinary." It wasn't unpleasant, which is what I expected from the descriptions of "gelatinous strings in broth," but it wasn't anything I would pay for. As I rolled the soup on my tongue I tried to detect sharkiness. The broth had a nice flavor, and no, it didn't taste like chicken, but it didn't taste like shark either. The large chunks of cartilage felt more solid than I expected, and the texture was more like giant celery slices. I almost could have fooled myself into thinking that this was a vegetable soup.
Truth be told, I have dicey morals when it comes to food. I love love love fois gras. I love caviar too. I've eaten ortolan, even though it's been banned in France for years. I wouldn't have chosen the ortolan, but it was served at new year's dinner and my only choice was to eat it or be considered a rude American. Enough said.
Given that history I have to think twice before getting up on any foodie podiums to make speeches about food morality. It doesn't help that speeches about food morality are, in any case, inappropriate for birthday parties.
I took another spoonful or two so that my friend could see me eating it, then put my spoon down and discretely asked the waiter to take the bowl away. My friend's niece was sitting at our table and when my friend left for a minute Xav asked her what she thought about shark fin soup. She shrugged and said she didn't much care for it. We talked about how the younger generations are less inclined to eat the soup and how the trend is likely to die out - at least in the US - over time.
You can see a similar trend happening in Japan with whale meat. The Japanese industrialists insist on hunting them for "biological research," subsequently selling the meat in the markets. But whale meat is now being closely tracked and what the trackers are finding is that sales are slowing as fewer people are interested in eating it. It's something the old people do.
Cultures change. Children, raised in an era of increasingly-connected awareness of ecology and conservation, are growing up and becoming the new consumers. It's probably only a matter of time before many other delicacies go from the endangered species list to the hardly-ever-ordered list.
Will this happen in time to save these species?