The New York Times has put together one of its brilliant half-tragic, half-fascinating stemwinders (requires registration)—this time about the decline of traditional Maine fish chowder.

Back in the day, a sea-weary captain might have warmed up with something like this:

Cod, haddock, white hake, halibut, cusk and dozens of other groundfish, fish that live near the ocean bottom, mingled with clams, shrimp, lobster and mussels under the creamy surface of the stew, cresting a puddle of yellow butter here, a slick of smoky pork fat there.

Nowadays, in terms of chowdah crittas, you get lobster…and that’s about it. And while there’s a certain elegant luxury to that, the diminished variety reflects a gutted environment. The destruction of the local groundfish stock has knocked much of the resiliance out of the ecosystem.

And, as the story makes clear, that destruction is nothing to be sneezed at. In 1985, seven million pounds of groudfish were landed in Stonington, Maine alone; after ten years of pressure, the fish had disappeared from the bay.

The piece is not merely a downer vis-a-vis the decline of species. It also charts the decline of the independent New England fisherman, a breed waning for decades and certainly threatened if not actively endangered by extinction.

This is the Gray Lady at her finest—thoroughly researched, elegantly written, and disturbingly sobering. Maybe I should stick to Gourmet.

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