How I Became a Pescetarian

poissonThe year I decided to become a “permanent expatriate” in France was the year I became a “pescetarian.”

Translation: In 2005, as a teaching assistant nearing the end of her nine-month visa, I officially told my family I wasn’t leaving France. I also began eating fish.

Staying in France was not a difficult decision. Becoming a fish-eater was.

I did not like fish as a child (with the exception of baby popcorn shrimp covered in their layer of crusty fried dough). Thus my enthusiasm when my mom announced she was going to stop eating it. Of course, we children could continue eating fish if we wanted to. But my nine-year-old self couldn’t agree more: “Yay, no more fish! Save the dolphins, save the whales, save the salmon, save the clams!”

We instantly became a full-fledged vegetarian family. (The meat with legs had left the household before I had even been born). All through college I was a proud vegetarian with an exhaustive list of reasons why I didn’t eat meat- or fish. I couldn’t imagine ever eating it again.

Then one day, over fifteen years after my march through the house in defense of all sea creatures, I began thinking about maybe trying fish again. I actually couldn’t believe I was thinking this, neither could my sister (who had incidentally already become a “part-time pescetarian” but knew my views on what I called “animal human rights”. I was living in Southwestern France, far away from beans and chili (my comfort food as well as my essential source of protein back home). The restaurants offered no veggie burgers, no tempeh filets, no sautéed tofu over collard greens. I felt very lost. I could find certain “vegetarian meats” in a handful of health food stores, but the quality (and the taste) was not what I was used to and made me want to take the next plane back to the U.S. I began to realize that vegetarianism in France, though more developed than it had been five years earlier, was far behind what I had grown up with. People definitely respected the fact that I was vegetarian and I surely had my share of delicious fresh vegetables and rice, but I could tell that my body was not very happy. I felt tired, and just plain hungry.

Thus I began thinking about maybe trying fish again.

It was a good three months before I actually took the plunge. I had heard some bad things about seafood. I was particularly concerned about the presence of mercury. This element occurs both naturally in the environment and is the result of industrial pollution. When released into the air, mercury settles in the water (where it becomes methyl mercury) and then builds up in fish. A neurotoxin, methyl mercury can have negative effects on the human brain and nervous system. I was also concerned about unsustainable and unethical fishing practices, over fishing and potential damage to the marine environment.

I had also heard some good things about fish. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are especially good for your heart, as well as for your brain and eyesight, are found in fish. Since I wasn’t eating much tofu, I needed a good substitute. My abundant research also led me to learn that fish was a good source of amino acids, iron and zinc. There I was, leafing through books, trying to weigh the health benefits and the risks of eating seafood.

After much internal debate, I decided there was no perfect choice and a decision had to be made. I would try salmon, the fish that seemed to best fit my picky criteria. It supposedly contained low levels of mercury, yet was high in Omega-3s.

Last dilemma: I wasn’t so sure about leaving behind the title “vegetarian.” What would I call myself now? That’s when I discovered the word “pescetarian” (one who does not eat meat, but who eats fish) and dove into a pile of French cookbooks. I had never cooked fish and I had absolutely no idea where to start.

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