Not so long ago, the real used to be prized more than the fabricated, and wild food was considered more noble and flavorful than products raised on a farm. This is no longer the case—as the population of the planet reaches critical mass, we have a choice between manufacturing our food supply or watching most species go extinct.
The New Yorker recently reported on a faux version of shark-fin soup concocted by Corey Lee. Lee is the former chef de cuisine at The French Laundry and the proprietor of a San Francisco restaurant named Benu. He spent most of 2010 working on the recipe, which uses hydrocolloids to simulate the gelatinous texture of shark’s fin. His sharkless finless soup has been praised by luminaries such as Alice Waters, not to mention a number of famous Asian chefs who couldn’t distinguish it from the real thing.
To obtain the key ingredient in real shark’s fin soup, fishermen cut the fins off the live sharks and throw the fish back in the sea to drown. This practice is almost universally regarded as cruel (unless you’ve seen the movie Jaws, or been the victim of a shark attack yourself). In the politically correct world of animal rights activism, Corey Lee is now a celebrity.
What strikes me as curious about this situation is that faux meat and animal products are usually greeted by snickering derision. If you disagree, tell all your friends that you’re preparing Tofurkey for Thanksgiving and watch their reactions. In the case of sharks the faux product is viewed as laudatory, even though turkeys rarely attack anyone. Defenders of the traditional Thanksgiving feast generally point out that turkeys are farm-raised and fattened specifically for the table—the assumption being that this makes it acceptable to slit their throats.
As of January 1, it’s illegal to “possess, sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute a shark fin” in California. This should settle the situation until some entrepreneur figures out a way to farm-raise sharks for the wealthy Asian market. Until then, let them eat hydrocolloids.