Bluefin in a Tube

Lab-produced fish hints at a guilt-free replacement for wild bluefin in sushi joints, but that’s certainly an illusion

By Rob Breeding

You’ve probably heard about the hamburger patty grown in a laboratory. It’s an interesting proposition, though I don’t know if it will ever be a cost-effective way to make hamburger at the scale humankind presently requires. Reportedly, McDonald’s sells 75 hamburgers every second.

Even if the technology never approaches practicality, the quest will remain a kind of existential thought experiment, like that television series that imagines America if we’d lost World War II and the Germans and Japanese had divvied up the United States. With laboratory meat, however, we’re left to ponder the meaning of being a meat eater, or vegetarian for that matter, in a world in which no sentient beings are killed satisfying McDonald’s corporate protein requirements.

So far, the only lab meats that resemble something you’d want to put in your mouth are ground products, burgers and chorizo and such. Growing something that actually resembles a steak — with its complex mix of muscle, fat, connective tissue and bone — remains pure fantasy.

Washington Post food writer Tim Carman recently visited the university where I teach. His discussion inspired last week’s turkey column, as well as this week’s reflection on lab meat. Carman described his recent story on efforts to grow bluefin tuna in the lab, an effort so far limited to producing a paste-like product that costs in the neighborhood of $19,000 per pound.

The bluefin effort is up against the same problems confounding a lab-grown ribeye: you can grow muscle cells, but the structure of tuna flesh will be hard to replicate. There’s also the matter of taste. Bluefin, or any animal protein, doesn’t get its flavor solely by being something. Taste is a byproduct of how that animal lives and what it eats.

Bluefin hunt in packs, endlessly swimming in search of herring, squid and sardines. These migrations may cross thousands of miles of open ocean. Bluefin tuna are marathoners, warm-blooded, with muscles sporting high concentrations of oxygen-fixing myoglobin, a protein which also gives bluefin flesh its bright red color, like a cherry LifeSaver.

Ambush predators such as a northern pike don’t need the marathoner’s myoglobin-infused muscle. Pike are mostly sedentary, waiting patiently until the next meal swims by. Their white-flesh is filled with fast-twitch muscle fibers that make possible the brief frenzy of the ambush. Pike aren’t a favored food fish, but with careful filleting their dreaded Y-bones can be removed and those I’ve eaten were mild and delicious.

Myoglobin also accounts for the white and dark meat you carved from your Thanksgiving Butterball. The thick, rarely used muscles of a turkey breast are mild white meat, a legacy of the wild bird’s fixed-to-the-ground lifestyle. The well-used thighs and drumsticks have more myoglobin, deeper flavor, and of course, darker color.

The Japanese initially shunned bluefin in favor of milder tasting fish. That began to change after World War II and demand for bluefin exploded in the late 20th century. Overfishing and the farming of captured wild tuna in the Mediterranean Sea has pushed bluefin to endangered status.

Lab-produced fish hints at a guilt-free replacement for wild bluefin in sushi joints, but that’s certainly an illusion. I don’t doubt the ingenuity of the lab-coated crowd, but there’s another component of flavor that can’t be reduced to muscle fibers, connective tissue and oxygen-fixing proteins.

Hunters and anglers know this. The flavor of game includes the terroir of the hunting grounds, the seasoning of the chase, and also layers of pride and remorse, that complicated cocktail of emotions ethical hunters feel when we haven’t contracted out the kill shot to workers on the slaughterhouse assembly line.

These are tastes that can never be replicated in a petri dish.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.