A Seattle Biologist's Cookbook Research

Phil Levin, a biologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, talks to Michele Norris about the method used for one of his latest research projects. Levin wanted to examine the area's seafood history to better understand the decline of rockfish, three species of which were put on the endangered species list last month. So he and a colleague looked at more than 100 cookbooks published in Oregon and Washington between 1885 and 2007. While he didn't find many rockfish recipes, he did discover some patterns in Northwest cooking.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Phillip Levin is a marine biologist who knows how to think out of the box or, in this case, inside the frying pan. Levin works at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, and he was curious about the local decline of rockfish. But there wasn't much historical data about the rockfish population. Levin is a home cook and a foodie, and he and a colleague decided to do some research using old cookbooks. And while they didn't turn up much on the rockfish, they did learn a lot about the consumption of seafood in the Pacific Northwest.

And Phillip Levin joins me now to talk about what he learned.

Welcome to the program.

PHILLIP LEVIN: Thanks very much for having me.

NORRIS: How many cookbooks did you actually scour and how far back in time did you go?

LEVIN: We ended up looking at about 102, I think, cookbooks, a little over, 3,000 recipes. And we went back into the late 1800s.

NORRIS: Where did you find these cookbooks? Were they at the library? Where are they kept?

LEVIN: Yeah. We went to basically every library in the Pacific Northwest, so mostly in Seattle, Portland, Bellingham, the major cities. My favorite cookbook is from the Ladies Aid Society of the First Seattle Christian Church, and that was in 1906. And that was typical of cookbooks of that time.

But as you get into more recent years, it's more like, you know, the Pike's Place Market Cookbook and that sort of thing.

NORRIS: Well, tell me about the Ladies Aid Cookbook.

LEVIN: Well, my favorite recipe, and one that I actually made the other day, was called A Substantial Oyster Dish. Basically what you do is you cook rice in oyster juice and then you add butter and then egg yolks and then butter, crackers, butter, cream and tomato juice.

NORRIS: No more butter?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEVIN: That's it, yeah. So I fed it to my wife. And the thing they didn't say in there was: Be sure and keep the pathway from the table to the sink clear because it's - it was gross.

NORRIS: Really?

LEVIN: And - but my chickens liked it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: You fed it to the chickens afterwards.

LEVIN: Well, nobody else would eat it.

NORRIS: So after basically cataloging all these recipes, it sounds like you found no recipes for rockfish before 1970.

LEVIN: Yeah, almost - no, there were one or two scattered about. But then in the mid-'70s, they started appearing. And really, by the late 1980s, they were common and then they start disappearing again in more recent years. And what happened was that in the 1970s, salmon fishing opportunities were declining. Nobody had really concentrated on rockfish up until that time. And then they became a target for fisheries as a way to make money basically for people who lost their opportunities with salmon fishing.

NORRIS: Mr. Levin, what do you do with all this information now?

LEVIN: That is a really good question. I think what we've found is the importance of using these historical type non-traditional research methods to do two things. One, it really shows how changes in the market conditions reflect what's going on in the water. And the other thing it does, which is - was really interesting to me, is I was a waiter in a seafood restaurant in the 1980s. And back then, the thing to do was blackened redfish.

So you would just take redfish, which otherwise was pretty bland, and you'd coat it with butter and pepper and set it on fire, and everybody loved it. And a few years later, redfish were gone - not completely gone but overfished. And so, it shows the power of, in that case, a single chef - Paul Prudhomme - to affect people's tastes and therefore exert fishing pressure and then result in decline of fish stock.

NORRIS: Phillip Levin, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. I just am compelled to ask one last question: What's on your dinner table tonight?

LEVIN: I have no idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEVIN: Hopefully, not leftover Substantial Oyster Dish.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: Well, you have lots of other cookbooks to consult. Thank you very much.

LEVIN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Phillip Levin is a National Marine Fisheries biologist. He's based in Seattle, Washington.

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