In yesterday’s Baccalaureate address at Sewanee, philanthropist Florence Day encouraged graduates to “think big but work small,” and suggested that the University itself could do something about local hunger by opening a tilapia farm on the Domain. She noted that it might be appropriate if tilapia, also known as St. Peter’s fish, were raised out near the School of Theology!
As it happens, I had a half-finished post about St. Peter’s fish in my draft file, so I think I will put it up in honor of this idea. I hope Sewanee will in fact open such a farm– it would be a great way to provide fresh fish to the area.
During Spring Break, we went to visit the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, Florida, where you can see these big blue vats full of tilapia. I had not really realized how much tilapia is raised in this and other artificial venues–in fact, the whole meteoric rise of tilapia over the last decade is not something I really knew much about till recently (though there were reports last month of it being “worse for you than bacon” that turn out not to be true).
It’s interesting to note that the tilapia is also known as “St. Peter’s fish,” as it is supposed to be the very sort of fish Peter was hauling in when he was called by Jesus. Tilapia were plentiful in Israel in ancient times, though not so much anymore. Last fall, The Times of Israel reported that a million tilapia were being introduced into the Sea Of Galilee last fall, in order to boost the sea’s dwindling fish population as well as “to clear its waters of toxins originating in seaweed – the tilapias’ food source – and act as biofilters to balance out the lake’s ecosystem.”
In addition, tilapia represent a growing part of the fish-selling business. In 2011, the New York Times noted that “Americans ate 475 million pounds of tilapia last year, four times the amount a decade ago.” According to an article in Seafood Business later that year, “Tilapia became the No. 4 top-selling species on the U.S. per-capita consumption list in 2010, behind shrimp, canned tuna and salmon. And it climbed to that position rather quickly, going from No. 10 in 2002 to No. 9 the following year, and then No. 6 in 2004 and 2005 until it became No. 5 from 2006 to 2009.”
So there’s a pretty penny to be made on selling tilapia–not too surprising given the Biblical story with which the fish is associated. According to the Gospel of Matthew (17:24-27 NRSV):
When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes, he does.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’ When Peter said, ‘From others’, Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.’
So far as I know, there are only two representations of this famous scene–one by Massaccio in Florence’s Brancacci Chapel, the other by Cecil De Mille in his 1927 silent film, King of Kings. There may be others. All I know is that, if ever er take Florence Day’s advice and start raising tilapia here in Sewanee, perhaps somebody will find a coin in one of their mouths!