Discover more from Feminist Food Journal
Sea Moss Panna Cotta
An ecofeminist approach to seafood
Despite the ethical and environmental questions around fishing, coastal food cultures centred on fish, mollusks, and crustaceans provide a connection to place and a sense of identity. But what culinary possibilities emerge when we reconceptualize “seafood”?
By Elise Schloff
When I was a child, my father worked a lot — and was at the bar just as often. Most of the scant happy memories I have of him from my childhood involve fish; we lived on the coast of Virginia, and seafood was an important part of our family’s food culture and identity. After a long day working as a contractor, my dad would spend nights working on a commercial fishing boat. He would return in the morning with hands bloodied from pulling up huge nets laden with fish, indiscriminately scooped up from the Atlantic. I remember him deftly cleaning and fileting tuna, mahi, and snapper, the raw flesh of which I waited — mouth agape like a baby bird — for him to drop onto my tongue. When I was five, he helped me to catch my first fish.
My dad’s seasonal work as a commercial fisherman meant our household income ebbed and flowed. When he was flush with cash during fishing season, we could afford to live a bit more lavishly. Growing up in the early 2000s, during the soaring popularity of sushi amongst white middle-class Americans, that meant getting takeout sushi. I was besotted, never content with simple California rolls but desperate to try the most obscure (to me) items on the menu: baby octopus, eel, unagi. My dad was delighted by my adventurous appetite, and his encouragement is likely why I have an open mind towards food and still find myself ordering the most unfamiliar item on the menu or gravitating toward unique produce at the farmer’s market.
When I declared myself a “vegetarian” at the age of fourteen, it didn’t even cross my mind to exclude fish. Seafood wasn’t addressed in Food Inc., the documentary that connected my vegetarian aspirations — born out of a desire to participate in what I interpreted as a “cool” subculture — to a moral framework. I didn’t know anyone else who was a vegetarian, and I had yet to identify myself as a feminist or an environmentalist; I just knew that I was too viscerally disgusted to eat the lasagna my mom had prepared for dinner that night. Not only was I horrified at the mistreatment of livestock animals and the impact of factory farming on the environment, but the idea of eating industrial, conventional meat produced under those conditions made me sick to my stomach. Yet fish was such a cultural and culinary mainstay that it didn’t occur to me that any of the environmental or ethical concerns that I had about the meat industry and factory farming could be applied to the fish that my father caught. When I started my first job as a hostess at a seafood restaurant, I assured my coworkers that of course I still ate fish.
Definitions of vegetarianism vary across time and place. When vegetarian eating became more mainstream in the US and UK in the 1960s and 1970s, some vegetarians continued to eat fish. For example, when Bloodroot, Connecticut’s famous feminist vegetarian restaurant first opened in 1977, they included some fish dishes on their menu, which remained until 1980. Then in 1993, the title “pescatarian” emerged to describe those who eat fish but no other meat — although many pescatarians continue to use the vegetarian label.
People’s reasons for choosing vegetarianism also vary widely, making it difficult to make generalizations about the motivations for excluding only meat, or also fish from one’s diet. But what is interesting is the distinction itself: what makes sea creatures different from land-dwelling animals? In the Western world, perhaps the influence of religion has played a role in creating this dichotomy. For instance, fish is permitted during Lenten fasting, which enshrines it as separate from meat — a cultural norm that is reinforced by the physical distance between humans and marine life.
It is easy to feel a kinship with cows, with their large, pleading eyes, or with pigs, who are extolled for their high intelligence. In contrast, the vast depths of the sea and those that inhabit it feel otherworldly. Could it be that we just don’t empathize with fish? As Kenny Torrella writes:
They live underwater, so we rarely interact with them. They can’t vocalize or make facial expressions, so it’s much harder to understand them than mammals and birds. And research has shown that the further animals are from us on the evolutionary chain, the less likely we are to try to protect them.
Maybe this is why animal welfare and “humane” slaughter regulations are not nearly as stringent for fish as for other animals (in places where they exist at all). A growing movement of fish welfare activists is working to improve this, armed with evidence that fish are sentient beings capable of feeling pain as much as animals farmed on land.
Thinking about this sentience and the impact of other animal-sourced products, in college, I went fully vegan. I was learning about the Combahee River Collective, reading The Sexual Politics of Meat, and researching feminist restaurants like Bloodroot. I started feeling like it was my responsibility as a feminist to live out my values to the best of my ability and avoid supporting agribusiness that harms the environment, workers, animals, and consumers.
However, when I moved to Portland, Maine in 2021, I began to prioritize a more malleable version of sustainable eating over a strict adherence to veganism. Like my coastal Virginia hometown, so much of Maine cuisine revolves around seafood. Not eating seafood began to feel like I was depriving myself of a deeper connection to my past and current home, so I started eating it selectively. Through foraging and eating seasonally and locally I began to feel connected to Maine.
Eventually, though, the minefield of trying to eat fish and other seafood responsibly became overwhelming. Despite the abundance of claims in either direction, there is no clear consensus about whether farmed or wild-caught fish are better for the environment. A lot depends on what kind of fish you’re eating and where and how it was harvested (which can also be difficult to accurately ascertain). While there are some ways to consume seafood sustainably (I still eat oysters), I grew tired of wading through disinformation to determine what is truly sustainable. Today, I rarely eat animals from the sea.
Given my upbringing — and having spent most of my life living by the ocean — I still feel sentimental about seafood. So, I’ve decided to search for ways to be fed by the sea without contributing to overfishing or factory fish farming, forging an even greater connection to my home by making choices that protect local ecology. What happens when tradition and nostalgia are deprioritized and we instead opt for a utopian vision when constructing the food culture of a place? What culinary possibilities emerge when we reconceptualize “seafood”?
To me, one answer was seaweed. While seaweed may not be an exact nutritional alternative to seafood, it does serve as a sentimental one. As a forager and long-time vegetarian, I was already familiar with seaweed as a way to add umami to my food, but discovering an essay on sea moss and a recipe for sea moss pudding in The Salt Book (Maine’s equivalent to the Foxfire books), led me to look at seaweed in a new light.
Sea moss — also known as Irish moss or carrageenan — is a species of red algae that grows in rocky inlets throughout the coast of the Atlantic in Europe and North America. Sea moss is used to produce carrageenan for commercial use as a thickener in products like toothpaste and infant formula. The FMC plant in Rockland, Maine is the largest producer of carrageenan in the world. The prominence of the carrageenan industries in Maine, as well as Ireland, means that in both places sea moss is commonly used in cooking, including various versions of sea moss pudding, wherein milk, sometimes with the addition of eggs, is set to a gelatinous consistency with sea moss. When I discovered a recipe for sea moss pudding in The Salt Book, I knew that I could adapt it to make a vegan version of one of my favourite desserts, panna cotta.
To make sea moss panna cotta, I gather sea moss at a beach near me then clean and dry it for long-term storage, but it can also be purchased dried online. Most vegan panna cotta recipes I encounter call for agar, a vegan gelatin alternative made from another seaweed, but I find that it sets up much firmer, while sea moss produces a pleasantly smooth and jiggly panna cotta.
Foraging for and cooking with seaweed allows me to explore the true definition of “seafood” and maintain a culinary connection to the sea without compromising my values. I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I do.
Sea Moss Panna Cotta
Adapted from The Salt Book
Serves 4-6, depending on preferred serving size
¼ cup or 0.1 oz sea moss
600ml (2 ½ cups) soy milk (or any milk of your choosing)
60g (¼ cup) sugar
A pinch of salt
10g of neutral oil (optional, see notes)
Your choice of flavouring (see notes)
Soak the sea moss in cold water for about 10 minutes. Drain.
In the top of a double boiler, combine the milk, salt, sugar, and sea moss. Cook the mixture over gently simmering water for about 30 minutes, whisking occasionally.
When most of the sea moss has disintegrated, add your choice of flavouring. If using, blend oil into the mixture.
Strain the custard through a fine mesh sieve into the serving dish(es). Chill until firm. This should take at least one hour if you’re setting the panna cotta in individual ramekins, or at least three hours if you’re preparing one large dish.
When the panna cotta is set, garnish with caramel, fresh fruit, or whatever you like!
Because I typically use soy milk, which is lower in fat than cow or coconut milk, I like to use an immersion blender to add a bit of deodorized coconut oil to enhance the richness. If this feels like too much fuss for an otherwise quite easy dessert, you can skip it and still get a nice result.
Most base recipes for sea moss pudding call for vanilla extract. The vanilla industry is rife with ethical concerns, and in the interest of valuing it as the precious commodity it is, I want to move away from treating it as a default or background flavour. Instead, I love to add homemade rose water, infuse tea or herbs in the pudding (strain out with the sea moss), or use a vanilla substitute made from sweet woodruff.
Elise Schloff is a cook, food writer, and domestic care worker. Her work is inspired by foraged foods, feminist traditions, and her background in art history.