What Adam Smith Ate: In Which We Finally Discuss Herring

subsidies bounties what adam smith ate herring

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith, whose father was a customs agent, had practically grown up on the wharf in Kirkaldy, Scotland, By the 1770s, he could see first-hand the how hard it was for small Scottish fisherman to stay afloat.  They were left out of the subsidies and their costs were high. Salt -- required for curing and packing herring – was expensive (due to its own duties) and barrels had doubled in cost due to the American war. To add insult to injury, large fishing companies taking advantage of the tonnage bounties were fishing off the Scottish coasts chasing herring into “sea lochs” previously fished by locals. The price of herring was driven too high for locals, used to a plentiful and varied diet, to afford. 
Herring, the small fish from in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea, has historically been popular with the Dutch, German, English, and Scandinavians who fished them for centuries. Salted and packed in barrels, the fish were easy to preserve and ship so they could be eaten days or weeks later. Over time, each culture developed national tastes when it came to the popular fish. The English favored kippered herring which has been flayed open, salted, and cold-smoked. It’s frequently eaten with eggs or as a snack.

In Germany, herring is pickled in a salty brine and often eaten with acidic accompaniments like small pickles. Various Scandinavian countries have versions of the preserved fish often doused in sour cream. But the Dutch have a special reverence for herring – historically and today. The Dutch use a tangier sweeter brine when pickling herring and eat it topped with raw onion and chopped pickles. For some, it’s an acquired taste, and for others, it’s a street food favorite. 

So why do economists tend to associate herring with Adam Smith? It has to do with an age-old economic quandary and one on which Smith had strong opinions: why subsidies are a bad idea.

 In 1750, the British government had begun the practice of subsidizing industries. These subsidies – called “bounties” – were designed to keep supply plentiful and prices low. One of the largest bounties was on herring but only when fished by the ton. Large fishing companies operating ships called “busses” could take advantage of tonnage bounties while small fisherman could not. 

Smith, whose father was a customs agent, had practically grown up on the wharf in Kirkaldy, Scotland, By the 1770s, he could see first-hand the how hard it was for small Scottish fisherman to stay afloat.  They were left out of the subsidies and their costs were high. Salt -- required for curing and packing herring – was expensive (due to its own duties) and barrels had doubled in cost due to the American war. 

To add insult to injury, large fishing companies taking advantage of the tonnage bounties were fishing off the Scottish coasts chasing herring into “sea lochs” previously fished by locals. The price of herring was driven too high for locals, used to a plentiful and varied diet, to afford. 

In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith used the herring fishing industry as a specific example of why subsidies are a terrible idea. He famously wrote  “… it has, I am afraid, been too common for vessels to fit out for the sole purpose of catching, not the fish, but the bounty.” After extensive debate, Parliament extended bounties to small fisherman before ultimately ending them by the 1820s. 

In a letter to William Eden in 1780, Smith discusses herring and notes that the quality (and presumably taste) of Dutch herring as so much better than the English herring that “you can scarce imagine the difference.” Daniel Defoe in his 1738 A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, 2E, notes in Glasgow 

“they cure their herrings so well, and so much better than they are done in any other part of Great Britain, that a Glasgow Herring is esteemed as good as a Dutch one.”  

In honor of Smith’s love of Dutch herring, here’s an easy recipe for tangy Dutch style pickled herring which you can serve with new potatoes, a little dollop of sour cream, and raw onions. Herring deteriorates rapidly after it’s caught, so generally in Smith’s day, it was salted and cured rapidly.

If herring isn’t salted or brined before pickling, it turns mushy. This recipe uses filets from a can which have already been salted. If you can get fresh herring, soak the gutted and cleaned fish in a 4:1 water and salt solution for 24 hours in the refrigerator before pickling. 

Dutch-style Pickled Herring

  • 1 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 cup white distilled vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 white onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 6.7 oz can herring filets (about 12 filets)
  • 1 lb new potatoes
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ cup minced white onion (for serving)
  • Sour cream (for serving)

1. In a small saucepan, bring both vinegars, the water, sugar, and the sliced onion to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool.

2. Rinse the herring filets, then put them in a 4-cup bail jar or large canning jar. Pour the cooled pickling brine over the top. (As you develop your own taste for pickled herring, you can add spices to your brine, if you like.)  Pickle for at least 24 hours and up to one week in the refrigerator. 

3. When ready to serve, boil the potatoes until tender. Halve, toss in butter, and sprinkle with parsley. Season with salt and a pepper. 

4. Drain the pickled herring filets and place them on a platter. Top with the minced white onion. Surround them with the boiled potatoes, and serve the sour cream on the side.

What to Read (or Eat) More?
Previous posts in our "What Adam Smith Ate" series
The Appendix on Herring and Salt in the Wealth of Nations
#WEALTHOFTWEETS Addendum on Herring
Comments
Jon Murphy

Ooo this looks delicious! I love herring

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