Barton is a chef, author, speaker, 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 he 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.
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 beet plucked yesterday from a farm that uses heirloom seeds, with a bit of dirt still hanging on is a sight to be seen.
What is your book about and who is your audience?
For Cod and Country is a tool to help people incorporate 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 Wal-Mart, 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 with Future of Fish?
A lot of the work that people are doing in the Future of Fish is a new form of environmentalism. The focus is on the opportunities we have to eat, profit, and maintain rich cultural histories while continuing to enjoy the ocean’s bounty. 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.