Of Fish, Meat and Men

neyfakh susanbourette  ph Of Fish, Meat and Men“It’s okay with me. It’s a surf-and-turf kind of deal.” Sixty-nine-year-old Richard Ellis was talking about the fact that in May, two months before Knopf publishes his book Tuna: A Love Story, Putnam will be publishing a book by Susan Bourette called Meat: A Love Story. Mr. Ellis’ book is about the endangered bluefin tuna, which he calls “the fastest, smartest, most highly evolved fish in the ocean.” Ms. Bourette’s book is about traveling the world to taste and think about different kinds of meat.

Ms. Bourette, when asked through a publicist at Putnam to comment on the situation, sent The Observer an e-mail enumerating “10 reasons to love meat over the beleaguered tuna.”

No. 6: “Whenever I smell someone eating a tuna fish sandwich the same thought always occurs to me: Did I remember to feed the cat?” No. 9: “Let’s face it, who would have picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Tuna-boat Five?” No. 10: “The best thing you can say about a piece of grouper is that it’s meaty. The worst thing you could possibly say about a steak is that it tastes fishy.”

On the phone the next morning, Ms. Bourette explained some of her research methods. At the beginning of her journey, she said, she worked in a slaughterhouse chopping the cheeks off the heads of hogs as they came down an assembly line. (“I had to pick them up by the esophagus,” she explained.) By the time she started writing the book, she had tried alligator meat, whale meat, polar bear meat and many other kinds of meat.

Ms. Bourette said she definitely loves meat more than Mr. Ellis loves tuna. “For a woman who’s willing to go work in a slaughterhouse and then sit on an ice floe, where paw prints outnumber footprints, just to have dinner? Come on! I’ve got to love it more,” she said.

Mr. Ellis said it didn’t seem like their books were very similar. “It sounds to me like she’s more interested in what happens to the animal after someone kills it and prepares and cooks it,” Mr. Ellis said. “My approach to tuna is not purely as a food item, but rather as an animal that is being eaten out of existence.”

Mr. Ellis, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History who has written nearly 20 books on various oceanic topics, said he has loved the bluefin tuna for years. “It’s sort of the supreme oceangoing creature because it does everything better than every other fish,” he said, noting that the high demand for Bluefish tuna in Japan (80,000 tons get imported there in one year, according to Mr. Ellis’s research) has made the species almost extinct. Mr. Ellis said he recently painted a bluefin tuna, and will be using the painting as the cover of his book.

“I wrote a book about the great white shark, I wrote a book about the giant squid, I wrote a book about deepwater fish, I wrote several books about whales and dolphins. But this particular book, I feel particularly invested in emotionally. That’s why I called it a love story.”

Other recent books subtitled “A Love Story” include Truck: A Love Story (2006), Kabbalah: A Love Story (2006) and Asperger Syndrome: A Love Story (2007).