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Dynamic Range

Tuna’s marketing masterpiece

Tuna: The what of the what? (Flickr/Genista)

Americans eat a lot of tuna.

In 2011 we ate 2.6 pounds of tuna per person, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. That’s not much when compared to the amount of chicken we ate last year – 84.2 lbs. per capita according to the National Chicken Council – but it’s more than clams, cod, crab and catfish combined, and more than any other fish except for shrimp.  

Still, not only do we eat less tuna than say, chicken, we eat a lot less tuna than we used to; in 2000 Americans ate almost a pound more per capita. And according to author Andy Smith, “There is no evidence that Americans consumed tuna prior to the 20th century.”

“That shocked me,” said Smith, a noted food writer whose books include histories of the hamburger, the potato and popcorn. “And I wanted to know why.”

Smith’s curiosity led to another book, American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Fish. In it he traces tuna’s U.S. origins to California canneries in 1903. Then, tuna was a niche product. You might have tasted it if you were an Italian immigrant with a more rarified palate, Smith said. But the oily fish tasted funny and was otherwise unfamiliar to most Americans.

So how is it that within five years tuna went from an unknown player to, as Smith put it, “one of America’s most important sea foods?”

Smith said that World War I played a big part. Beef was scarce, so civilians turned to canned foods, and the U.S. government bought tuna to feed the troops. It made its way to our allies in Britain and France via ships passing through the Panama Canal.

But that’s not all: According to Smith, the tuna industry in America launched a PR campaign so brilliant and so ubiquitous, you may not even know it was once a catchy advertising slogan. (No, I don’t mean last year’s limpid “Tuna the Wonderfish!” campaign.)  

Hear Smith describe the brilliant marketing move that made tuna a routine part of our casseroles in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Andy Smith spoke at an event presented by Culinary Historians of Chicago in November. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

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