At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Monday, April 7, 2014

Why We Throw Down!

This post comes to us from Niaz Dorry, NAMA's coordinating director.

No…. my long standing crush on Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain has nothing to do with why we started holding Seafood Throwdowns, now in their sixth season! Sure, I’ll turn into a pile of goo if Bourdain showed up at one of these events. But really, this is all about marine conservation.

Truth be told: I hate tabling!

For nearly 30 years working on social, economic and environmental justice issues I’ve done my share of tabling, knocking on doors and any other activity that gave people the choice of listening to what we had to say. 

So in 2008, when I took the helm at the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, I knew we had to get the message out about the corporate takeover of the ocean, privatization of fishing rights and the ocean commons, the consolidation happening within the fishing industry leading to “too big to fail” operations that will come back to bite us, and other impacts on marine fisheries and ocean’s health not discussed by the mainstream marine conservation conversations.

That had to change, and we needed a strategy for reaching a broader population than who had been paying attention to date. We had to be untraditional to get the attention of the most number of people.

A Throwback Throwdown! (2008)

My friend Jessica Hayes and I began to brainstorm ways to inject fisheries issues into our local farmers market and in food systems conversations in general where we could not only talk about the need to shift the seafood market, but also the local, regional, national, and international policies - such as Catch Shares - that are leading to major consolidation of the fishing industry. But the idea of tabling about it actually churned my stomach. I felt strongly that we needed to create something that compelled people to pay attention, not give them a choice.

The 2013 Cape Ann Farmers Market Throwdown

Lucky for our work, Jessica’s role as the manager of Cape Ann Farmers Market here in Gloucester, MA gave us a venue to test our theories. Jessica’s pedigree as an activist is pretty impressive. She's worked with the Genetic Engineering Action NetworkFarm Aid and a number of other organizations concerned about the social, economic and ecological implications of industrial food production and genetically modified foods. 

Needless to say, she was just as excited about creating a dynamic, interactive activity that would pull people into our work.

Getting ready to Throwdown at a Boston Winter Market, 2013

Thus began a series of weekly, casual, informal conversations around my kitchen table about exactly what we could or should do. The conversation benefited from the experiences and expertise of variety of friends including Hallie Baker of Turtle Alley Chocolates (best chocolates in the world, by the way); local foodie and graphic designer Margot Lord; long time fisheries activist and one-time seafood purveyor and owner of Pigeon Cove Seafood (now owned by Whole Foods) Steve Parkes; local restaurateur, local economy advocate and time banker Mark McDonough; musician and artist Shep Abbot; Jessica of course, and others.

Part of the original "kitchen table" crew! From left Jessica Hayes, Margot Lord, Steve Parkes.

From these kitchen table conversations was born the idea of Seafood Throwdowns. What better way to figure out strategies for integrating seafood into the food system than to sit around, eat great food and talk about food with creative people who care about our food? We figured if it worked for us, it’d work for the general public we wanted to reach.

Yes, we stole concepts from Bobby Flay’s Throwdowns and the Food Network’s Iron Chef series. And we give them credit every step of the way. The hybrid event has proven to be one that draws thousands of people each year. The aromas, action, energy and conversations that come with a Seafood Throwdown draw people in. They come to watch a cooking show and end up learning about the threats to our ocean and fisheries, and find real tangible ways to do something about them.

A hotter-than-heck Throwdown in Roxbury, July 2013
Another benefit of organizing Seafood Throwdowns has been the lasting relationships between our community partners and us. Together, we've not only put on a great, educational event, we've created change along the way. 

There have been other benefits: The City of Boston’s antiquated ordinance that prohibited the sale of seafood on farmers markets was rewritten once the city’s health inspectors worked with us on a Seafood Throwdown at the first ever Boston Local Food Festival

Throwing down at the 2013 Boston Local Food Festival

The county commissioner who adamantly opposed sale of seafood in public settings such as farmers market in the Outer Banks of North Carolina came to me after our first Seafood Throwdown in Hatteras, NC to say how he’s come around. These are just two examples of how behavior has changed and how as a result, more people have access to fresh local seafood because of these events. 

Today what started out around my kitchen table has become a popular and effective event we hold throughout the region and beyond. 

Seafood Throwdowns have been held at food festivals, farmers markets and even hospitals in Burlington, Vermont; Boston, Gloucester, Rockport, Marshfield, Leominster, Chatham, Hyannis, Martha’s Vineyard and New Bedford, Massachusetts; Unity, Maine; Rye and Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Providence, Rhode Island; Brooklyn and Manhattan, New York; Halifax, NS, St. Paul, MN, Anchorage, AK, Hatteras, NC. There was even a pseudo-Throwdown in Cornwall, UK! 

Busting out the megaphones, Armory Park, Rhode Island

Our 2014 Seafood Throwdown season is about to start. Our first one is May 17th in Chatham with the Women of Fishing FamiliesVisit our website soon for the full schedule.

In the meanwhile, I gotta ask… are you ready for a Throwdown!?

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