There’s much to be learned about offbeat seafood from island dwellers, I learn during a chat with the cheery woman behind the Oceanna Seaplants table at the Charlottetown Farmers Market. She seems unusually well-informed about the nutritional and medicinal benefits that come from what I’ve always called seaweed, and also solves my touristo gift-list problems with one-of-a-kind skin creams, massage oils, gels, balms, soaps, shampoos and teas–all made from plants washed up on P.E.I. beaches.
When I ask for cards to enclose with the gifts, I learn that the beachcombing vendor is marine biologist Irene Novaczek, who directs the Institute of Island Studies at the University of P.E.I. Before she knows it, she’s agreed to meet me at an Aboriginal festival at Panmure Island the following day and show me the seaweed sights.
The festival is a perfect setting for the points she likes to stress. Novaczek believes that rediscovering the potential of sea plants is central to the recovery of healthy Aboriginal traditions, as well as to safeguarding the food security of today’s coastal and island populations as the world enters a resource crunch.
She explains the intricacy behind the long-chain polysaccha-rides in sea plants–a cuisine some experts call phycophagy. Her personal laves are gracilaria, sugar kelp and wrack. Gracilaria, which thrives in the sheltered waters of P.E.I., looks like a scrawny twig. A source of manganese, zinc and iodine, it can be slipped into soups or salads or cooked as pickles or puddings. This is the edible genius that nature washes up on the beach, laying it at the feet of coastal animals–including humans, most of whom have lost the ability to recognize it as such.
The authoritative Cambridge World History of Food identifies sea plants (what the tasteless experts call marine algae) as rich sources of protein, iodine, phenols and a good range of crucial but hard-to-get trace minerals, as well as essential fatty acids. Aboriginal peoples around the world recognized this found wealth, says Novaczek, as revealed by archeological digs, and one of her goals is to help them rediscover their food heritage, so they can access these low-cost and healthy foods.
Phycophagy carried on after the rise of agriculture, which is why sea plants became staples of folk cuisines in coastal and island nations around the world. Japanese cooks put the spotlight on marine algae by using dried nori to wrap sushi. But more commonly, nutritious, medicinal and economical sea vegetables were smuggled into tasty breads, salads, soups, stews and pickles of peasant cuisines in the same unsuspecting way stern moral lessons (don’t tell lies, for example) were incorporated into entrancing folk tales (Pinocchio, for instance).
Industrial food systems of the recent past found even trickier ways to smuggle sea plants into foods: Corporate industries don’t generally like found materials such as sea plants. They’re hard to patent, brand, process, monopolize and make a premium profit from. This is why sea plants disappeared as whole foods and reappeared in industrial foods as extracted properties listed as additives.
Specific sea plant properties are great as thickeners or emulsifiers, while others are superior for water retention, ideal as gelling agents, or nice for flavour or aroma. As on the industrial assembly line, the more specific and isolated the function, the less complexity there is to control, and the easier it is to substitute a cheaper replacement or automate by excluding the need for a subtle touch.
That’s why industrial food processing marginalized sea plants as whole foods, opting instead to either substitute manufactured chemicals (this is how MSG came onto the food scene), or, alternatively, to treat sea plants as storehouses of functions that can be strip-mined for one particular property.
As a consequence, individual constituents of sea plants–especially alginate, agar and carrageenan–play a central and omnipresent role in today’s industrial food system precisely because sea plants are such a versatile stockpile of easily mined functional properties.
Carrageenan, a core element in the Irish moss, which Prince Edward Island supplied to the food processing world from the 1930s to the 1970s, is excellent at thickening, stabilizing and holding water. Those functions–not the plentiful protein, iodine and sulphur found in Irish moss–explain why taste-and calorie-free carrageenan is on the label of salad dressings, ice cream, beer, baked goods and processed sandwich meats, to mention only the most common.
By the 1970s, though, the Philippines took over the dominant position as supplier of fake food additives, and Irish moss now plays a minor role in P.E.I.’s food or employment system. Novaczek has tried organizing a co-op to gather and prepare Irish moss baked goods but the co-op faced hard times. She still actively promotes her own line of healthful products through Oceanna Seaplants.
It’s crucial that islanders around the world keep the traditions alive, she says. In a world entering an era of fuel shortages and transportation disruptions affecting crucial goods, recovering traditions from the era when islands were more self-reliant may make the difference for survival. “We need to work with the natural resources at hand and live within our means,” she says.
WAYNE ROBERTS coordinates the Toronto Food Policy Council, and is the senior author of several eco-food books, including Get a Life? and Real Food for a Change.