Sunday, July 1, 2007

Sushi and Globalization

Brendan I. Koerner has an interesting essay published on Washington Monthly’s website: “Nashville Nigiri: Is the spread of sushi to middle-class American malls a good globalization story?”

The essay is in part a review of a recent book, Sasha Issenberg’s The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy, but it really takes reviewing that book as a jumping off point for Koerner’s own take on sushi’s expanding popularity in the U.S. as a “good globalization story.”

The expansion of the popularity of sushi in the U.S. over the past decade is impressive. The community I live in, Pensacola, Florida, is a good example. Ten years ago, there were two or three Japanese restaurants in Pensacola, and you could find sushi, but it was a relatively expensive delicacy and not something the average Pensacolian ate or was even particularly aware of. Today, there are well over a dozen Japanese restaurants in the area. In addition, sushi is available (at least in a small selection) on the buffets of several local Asian buffet all-you-can-eat restaurants, and sushi trays can be purchased at many local grocery stores. Sushi has become part of the food repertoire of many Pensacola residents.

One striking example of this is the success of one local restaurant, Tokyo, which is located in strip mall along with a Winn Dixie supermarket (a regional grocery chain catering mainly to a working class clientele). Every Saturday, a car club meets in the strip mall’s parking lot. On that night, the Burger King and Popeye’s chicken restaurants that are also in the parking lot do a good business, but Tokyo restaurant is absolutely packed with mostly working class auto aficionados – not all are eating sushi to be sure, many enjoying instead a steak off the hibachi, but many are. Along with the spread of sushi’s popularity have come local sushi innovations, such as the tempura shrimp tempura roll (deep fried shrimp tempura wrapped in a sushi roll, with the whole roll them tempura battered and deep fried, and then usually drizzled with a spicy and fatty mayo sauce).

As Koerner asks, is this spread of sushi to America’s middle class a good globalization story? For that matter, is the spread of sushi’s popularity to America’s working class as well in places like Pensacola a good globalization story?

In several ways it is.

1. Sushi can be a good thing in itself, well prepared. The extension of the small pleasures in life to a greater number of people is a good thing. The fact that something that the wealthy and some of the middle class in America already could take for granted is now something that America’s working class can enjoy and even begin to take for granted is a good thing. On this point, my only lament is that in global terms, the vast majority of the world’s population can’t do the same.

2. Sushi is symptomatic of one important benefit of globalization for the middle and working classes of the U.S. and some other parts of the world. It’s not that they’re become particularly more wealthy, and certainly not more economically secure, but globalization has lead to greater affluence of a limited sort for many by virtue of lower costs for consumers. Affordable sushi for the masses of America is just one example. (For those whose jobs are less secure or have been lost in relationship to globalization, this is obviously not a major benefit.)

3. Food is a different sort of commodity. First, it’s one commodity we can’t do without or we die. Second, much if not most food is culturally significant, bound up with symbolism and cultural significance, and this largely because of its absolute essentiality. Food cosmopolitanism can be related to an opening of the mind by way of one’s stomach. My sense, and this is largely just my intuitive sense, is that alongside the expansion of sushi and of the availability of international cuisine in general in Pensacola over the last decade has come a correlated opening of minds towards other cultures. I don’t sense that there’s been a major change or sea shift, but I do think it’s real.

All that said, the globalization of sushi carries costs that make ambiguous its standing as a good globalization story, though this side of the story is really not touched upon by Koerner.

Sushi, and seafood in general, has a heavy ecological cost. The commercial fishing of wild fish species has systematically led to the depletion of one population after another. Sushi is currently affordable to some of America’s working class, but I don’t see how this can continue to be true for the next ten or twenty years. As pleasurable as sushi can be, when pondering the costs of commercial fishing and overfishing on many fish stocks, it begins to be a guilty pleasure. Fish farming of fish like salmon might not have the same problems with depletion of populations, but it carries its own serious ecological costs, stemming from often serious pollution of adjacent ecosystems.

Finally, there are the carbon emissions involved in the sushi trade and the effects on global warming. Its not unusual for a tuna roll to be the final product of a supply chain that flies a tuna caught in the Atlantic to Tokyo for auction, followed by transport to the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere, followed by further transportation before reaching the consumer. That’s a lot of carbon emissions to produce a relatively small food product.

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