Barton is a chef, author, speaker, Sustainability Fellow in Residence at the New England Aquarium and National Geographic Fellow whose work focuses on telling the story of saving the oceans through the humble vehicle of dinner. Since putting sustainable seafood on the map in his native Washington, D.C., he has built an international reputation as a sustainable seafood expert and oceans advocate. In 2011, Barton published For Cod and Country, a book of ocean-friendly recipes and made his television debut as host of the TV series In Search of Food. He now serves as the Director of the Healthy & Sustainable Food Program at Harvard University's School of Public Health.
What was your relationship with fish growing up?
It started off walking down the seafood wharf here in D.C. as a little boy. The fish were right at eye level for me, and there was a wonderful array of everything coming out of the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. My family also spent hours on mud flats digging for clams for fun. We pulled up hundreds, and cooked them all in one pot. I remember that being the first time I ever tasted clams. It was the sweetest, most unbelievable flavor.
As a kid I had the great fortune of spending summers at the Chesapeake Bay. My brother and I would walk up and down the pier pulling male crabs off the pilings with a net. We were catching a bushel of giant crabs a day. Then in the early 1990s we started to see a decline. On any given day we’d catch a quarter bushel of small male crabs.
How did you first connect sustainability with seafood?
My connection to sustainability and the community aspect of things really came through sustainable agriculture, where the benefits of an interwoven and interdependent system are more obvious. A sustainably harvested, heirloom beet plucked the previous day and still speckled with dirt is a sight to be seen. Fishermen participate in a holistic cycle just like farmers do. But sustainability is not necessarily a marker of quality in seafood. Sustainable and unsustainable seafood can taste exactly the same.
What is your book about, and who is your audience?
For Cod and Country is a tool to help people introduce more seafood into their diet. It’s arranged by season and highlights the times and a places in which different types of seafood taste the best, are available, safest to catch, and are most economical. While there are some recipes for king salmon, there are also ones for canned sardines. Although the book is seafood-centric, it strongly emphasizes vegetables. We’re never going to save the oceans just by eating sustainable seafood alone. Portion control is key. The recipes are aimed at the home cook. Unlike a chef that has a managerial role, a cook is universal. I wrote the book for people who shop at Walmart, for those who struggle to fit seafood into their diets, for families trying to get their kids to eat vegetables. Frankly, I wrote it for people who don’t necessarily have a lot of expendable income.
What is your role in the Future of Fish?
In many ways, much of the work that Future of Fish is doing can be seen as a new form of environmentalism. Their work focuses on opportunities to perpetuate our enjoyment of the ocean's bounty that combine profitability, consumption, and the preservation of the rich cultural histories of coastal communities. Every message needs a messenger, and there are incredibly compelling ideas and dedicated people who are working to create lasting, profitable solutions that benefit all of us. I hope to be the storyteller.