Tessa Emmer, Catherine O’Hare, and Avery Resor make up the three-woman team behind Salt Point Seaweed. Not only does their company sell tasty, high quality, and responsibly sourced seaweed snacks, but are also rooted in the worlds of ecology and environmentalism, pairing up with Hog Island Oyster Company to develop a regenerative ocean farming model for California. When they first met, Tessa, Catherine, and Avery were on very different paths - tracking illegal livestock in South East Asia, working in a Chinese herb shop, and managing a food and agriculture course for the UN in East Africa, respectively - but when they met in Tanzania, and learned about the (mostly female-driven) aquafarming operations in Zanzibar, they knew they had a real opportunity waiting for them back home in California. Since then, they’ve been busy harvesting wild seaweed off the coast of Mendocino County, and selling it to chefs at local restaurants, seafood CSAs, and at retail, as well as doing significant research on the ways seaweed could be a major asset in the fight against climate change.
Catherine O’Hare: One food memory that stands out is the feast associated with Greek Easter. Every year my family has a big Greek Easter celebration, and there’s so many unique foods that we eat. There’s usually a lamb that’s roasted in the backyard on a spit, and bright red eggs, and spanakopita that my yaya makes, so it’s a really vibrant day, but especially for food.
Avery Resor: The first thing that comes to mind is when I was in middle school, and it was a clear day in October. I think it was snowing, and then it cleared up. My dad took me out of school for the day and I played hooky, and we went on this hike, this giant hike, where we hiked from Idaho to Wyoming, and on the way, we found chanterelle mushrooms. We had always hunted for morel mushrooms, but this was the first time I ever found chanterelles. I can remember exactly the hillside where they were, under these trees, and still to this day, I remember eating them after this hike, when we were so exhausted at the end of the night.
Tessa: Emmer: Avery’s story just jogged my memory for my food memory, which would be the first time I ever ate a jackfruit. Jackfruits are huge, and I was working for a reforestation project, so the idea of finding wild fruit in the trees is what sparked it. One of my colleagues climbed up the tree, and it was such a process to pick the right jackfruit. You have to knock it, and smell it, and listen, and then he dropped it when he found it. And then it was so huge, it took like a whole team of people to eat it, which I love. It took like 20 minutes, and it’s super sticky, and super delicious. And now whenever I smell a jackfruit, I like to eat it then
PEI-RU KO: Vogue Magazine recently described seaweed as the perfect food, due to its nutrient-rich nature, and it has been repeatedly dubbed as a “superfood.” What are your immediate thoughts on the concept of superfoods, and what do you think is missing, if anything, from that kind of categorization?
AVERY RESOR: I was very impressed with that article. She is an amazing writer, and she actually went seaweed harvesting with Catherine before writing that article. I do think that the term “superfood” is just some simplification someone made up to communicate to people that “this food is healthy!” So it has purpose in that way. But it does take a very complex subject and simplifies it in both a good way and a bad way. It leaves out a lot of the nuance of nutrition, and how little we actually understand about it, and how different people thrive with different kinds of foods. So I would say yes, it can be a useful tool, and we use it sometimes, when we’re trying to say “listen, this is healthy! It really is!” But I think there’s a lot more nuance that’s missed due to that.
PK: And a follow up question would be - what are some of the benefits of eating seaweed? And what makes it so special?
CATHERINE O’HARE: Seaweed, first of all, is this really broad term that means all macro algae that grow in the ocean. So there’s red algae, green algae, and brown algae. It’s this huge group of organisms, but most marine algae has incredible mineral and vitamin content. So most are high in iodine, they have B-vitamins, B-12, and they are full of omegas. A lot of the reasons why fish are so nutritious is because the nutrition comes from algae, it’s the primary source. And seaweed is pretty high in fiber, so it’s a great food for all kinds of anti-inflammatory and digestive issues because it’s a really healing food. I think that part of that term, “the perfect food,” might also refer to the fact that all it needs to grow is ocean water and sunlight. That’s a super simplification, but it doesn’t take land, and it doesn’t take fresh water, so it’s a really quick growing organism, and can be farmed and harvested sustainably. So I think that’s another piece of the “perfect” classification.
PK: It also reminds me of one of our recent storytellers, Aileen Suzara, opened her sharing with a question - “which food has the highest nutritional density between kale, bok choy, and collards?” Because kale has been talked about as a superfood, a lot of people named kale, but actually a lot of these traditional foods that people eat a lot are also extremely nutritious. But in this quick categorization or in some sense, glamorization, a lot of traditional foods get forgotten.
TE: I think that’s one of the challenges with calling seaweed a superfood, is that it has this really long history of being a food in so many traditions around the world. There’s hesitation when it’s being called the new kale, or the superfood here right now, in this specific culture. The concern is that we don’t want this to be a fad that comes in and out, or that doesn’t acknowledge its long history of being eaten, and eaten regularly, and the role it’s served there. And seeing it for what it is, and not this on-trend food to add to your diet right now.
PK: So your work, Salt Point Seaweed, is unique, because you don’t just focus on the commercial sales of seaweed, but also on research surrounding its positive impact on the sea. What has been some of the most important findings on seaweed’s impact on the environment?
TE: I think as a baseline, all of the seaweeds that we work with are native varieties to California, and that’s a huge deal. Because California, and our cold, clean waters just grows hundreds of different species. So there are so many varieties of these nutritious wild foods in the water growing. And we’re only scraping the surface of the varieties with what we’re bringing to market right now. Then on top of that, is this really fast growing, native organism that absorbs carbon and all of these excess nutrients out of the water. So the idea that we could be growing a crop or sustainably wild-harvesting a crop that improves the environment it grows in is what we’re constantly propelled with. We have to include this as one of our local foods! Then just to explain that carbon and nitrogen -, since it’s a primary producer, seaweed actually uses carbon and nitrogen to grow, and so one of the big challenges that we’re seeing with climate change, and carbon emissions is that a lot of carbon gets absorbed into our oceans, which leads to ocean acidification. So seaweed is like the trees on land - seaweed in the water is one of our tools for mitigating that by absorbing carbon, and then at a local scale, de-acidifying the water.
CO: And there’s some really exciting studies looking at, if seaweed is grown close to shellfish and oysters, can it improve the water, right there, locally, to help make it a better environment for those shellfish to grow in. And that’s so exciting, for there to be research being done to show that seaweed can actually moderate the PH by absorbing carbon.
AR: We’re also really excited by research, and we’re trying to add to the research on growing seaweed in combination with other crops. So that’s really like, in layman’s terms, on land, that’s when you go to a farm, where you see tons of different crops growing together, and each one has benefits - either for the insects, or the soil, or a variety of aspects that helps the other ones to grow. Some people call this, in their garden, companion planting. And there’s a lot of research right now on land crops and how beneficial this, even though people have been doing this since we’ve been growing crops, but the research on ocean crops is just as exciting. Ad it just makes sense. That’s how they grow in the wild, and we just want to see how we can mimic that in a way where we can still be harvesting this while doing it sustainably for both the shellfish and the seaweed.
PK: If seaweed supports shellfish growth, are there any sea creatures that supports seaweed’s growth?
AR: Definitely! Seaweed is a primary producer, so it needs sunlight to grow, but it also needs nutrients in the water. All of the minerals that we benefit from when we eat seaweed, those came from the marine environment where it was growing. So the entire ecosystem and all of the organisms that live there all have a role in making seaweed what it is and making it more nutritious.
CO: And because seaweed needs clear water so that the light can reach it, there are organisms, like oysters, that filter the water, and that just helps with light availability. So there is a symbiosis there.
PK: Quite a dance.
PK: What are some of the most common misperceptions or questions you see about seaweed?
AR: I think that since this is still a relatively recent food that we’re bringing to people at farmer’s markets, and bringing to the local food scene, a lot of people will be like “oh, so the stuff that I see washed up on the beach, that’s what I’m eating?” And we’re like, no, we’re very picky about where we’re harvesting, when we’re harvesting, and how we’re harvesting, so you’re never going to get seaweed that washed up on the shore because it’s already begun to decompose at that stage. Everything has been pruned from a clean inter-tidal spot, and off of a living plant. So that’s our living algae.
CO: When we’re at the farmer’s market and offering samples, a lot of people are like “nope! I don’t like seaweed” and don’t even want to try it. And if you do get them to try, a lot of people are really surprised that the varieties we have here in California are pretty mild, and not super “fishy.” A lot of people aren’t familiar with the taste, so that just leads to some previous conceptions.
TE: “That actually tastes good!” Is like the number one, that happens so often. And then people are so excited because it was like, it had tasted so different than they had thought.
AR: Kind of going back to what we were talking about before, a big misconception is that this is a new superfood for people to be eating in America. And if people are familiar with seaweed, they are usually familiar with it from Asian cooking, which is a misconception! Seaweed has been eaten by cultures all around the world, and native cultures in California have specific ways of cooking seaweed, traditional ways, and continue to use it in sustainable ways. So if you go to any coastal culture around the world, it’s like a challenge to try to figure out how are they using seaweed in their cuisine. Whether it’s in South America in ceviche, or in Ireland, using dried dolse while drinking beer, there’s all of these different ways that people consume seaweed.
PK: What are some easy ways for beginners to start incorporating seaweed into their everyday use?
TE: There are two really easy ways to use seaweed - one, as a seasoning. It has natural salts in it, and through our processing, we really work to preserve as much of those natural sea salts as possible. And what’s special about the salts in seaweed is they‘re magnesium and potassium based. So you’re getting more minerals than standard table salt. So anywhere you can sprinkle salt and pepper, you can sprinkle seaweed to get a little bit of saltiness that’s also packed with other trace minerals and vitamins.
AR: I’m a huge fan of wakame - which we sell - and I love it just toasted, and just eating it like a chip. Or just chewing on it if you’re exercising and you need some iodine and some salt. It’s a really energizing snack food. Or rehydrating it, and just mixing it into salads - you can rehydrate and blanch it in boiling water, and it turns this beautiful green. It’s quite mild, and you can mix it into any salad that you’re making, and it’s like an easy trick to impress whoever you’re cooking for.
PK: As women in the intersection of marine biology, sustainability research, farming, food, and owning a business, you occupy a very interesting space, one that’s usually dominated by men. What are some of the challenges you face, and do you see the industry changing at all?
CO: There are definitely people we’ve met that probably didn’t take us seriously at first. It’s hard to think about. I do think the industry is changing. I think there’s a lot of support and enthusiasm right now for women-owned businesses, and we’ve definitely felt that enthusiasm. On the marine biology side of it, we’ve worked really closely with Hog Island Oyster Company and they’ve been super supportive of us, and they could have seen us as three young women coming to them with no previous relationship, but we were really prepared. And I think that’s one of the things that we do well, is stay open to things, but prepare really well, so when we came to them, they could see what we were offering.
TE: I think that one of the challenges - which might not be not be necessarily gendered - of straddling all of these different sectors is that our values lie in all of these different sectors as well. We’re not in this business to grow as fast as we can, we’re really trying to learn about California seaweed. We’re really trying to produce food in the way we think food should be produced, and sometimes that goes against some of the traditional ways to grow a business. So staying committed to our version of growth sometimes gets challenged by people in business in general, and people in this field, and sometimes that’s gendered, not always, but I think we do get challenged on our methods, like “that’s not the way to make money as quickly as possible,” which isn’t what we’re trying to do in the first place. We’re really trying to make the food that we believe in making. I totally agree with Katherine, there’s really been such a tremendous support - we have so much gratitude to all the women business owners that have come before us, because we’re definitely showing up at a time where women are being recognized, and supported, and I think the collaborations that we’re formed with other women in this space, like you, and other food business owners has been just so incredibly valuable, and something that really helps when we are challenged. We have a different vocabulary, and a different model to fall back on.
AR: We are in a very lucky and privileged place as three women. Partially because of our community, and being in this place and this time - as Tessa said, all of the women that have come before us had to fight harder than we had to fight. And also partially because Tessa and I went to grad school at Berkeley, and - I don’t know how to properly articulate this - but we don’t see the hardest side of being a woman-owned business. We see a pretty positive side, and we get to reap a lot of benefits, where as other people have to work harder, and having to face a lot more hardships than we do.
PK: Let’s talk a little bit about the future. With the new product launch, and with the new research, where do you see Salt Point Seaweed going in the next few years? What are the goals that you have for the company?
TE: Such a good question (laughs). I feel like with our research, each phase on farming seaweed, harvesting seaweed, on working with oyster farmers, has so many surprises, and we learn so much, that we have to be quite nimble, and be able to shift when we need to in order to support our vision of harvesting a sustainable seaweed product for California and making food out of it. So I think it’s kind of hard to see too far into the future.
AR: We’re entering out third year harvesting seaweed as a business, and we are in the middle of a really exciting Kickstarter campaign. We’ve already reached our preliminary goal, and are now working on our next goal. And what this will allow us to do is really invest in some of the infrastructure needed to help us process seaweed easier, which is going to let us process much more seaweed. And as we continue to research how we can cultivate seaweed in California, we’re simultaneously working on how to process that seaweed, and get more seaweed snacks to more places up and down the California coast.
TE: I do also see as our vision - and this was part of what got us started in the first place - is forming a network of seaweed farmers, and seaweed harvesters, and really facilitating that, and helping that grow so that we can all learn from each other. Whether that’s in California, or in Maine, or in other places in the world, that’s really a vision that goes along with our steady growth, and is more of a networked growth. Instead of our business growing internationally, we would love to have our network grow internationally.
CO: I think we’ll keep on in the direction that we’re going, which is producing food products for our local community, and doing farmer’s markets, and providing this seaweed. And on the other side of our personality is continuing to do this research on what seaweed farming could look like in California, and that’s going to be a long road, and might not get us anywhere super quickly, but we’re kind of still keeping both of those pathways.
PK: I don’t think slow is necessarily a problem. It’s because you have these visions, it’s about steadily getting there. So we’re super excited to watch where you guys go. We’ll be around, and in touch, and cheering for you. Just as we close - is there’s any last bits that you want to share with The Curious Eater podcast, anything you want to add?
CO: So much gratitude to Real Food Real Stories. You all have been so amazing, and do such important work of bringing storytelling to food. It really makes it come alive.
PK: Thank you all!