from the Autumn 2008 issue
A sea cucumber is a deep water Holothurian echinoderm that lives in dense communities on the sea floor, generally grows from four to 36 inches long, and, when harvested, cleaned, and deyhdrated, looks remarkably like a penis. “Pani pani de mahi mahi means ‘Sea cucumbers taste good.’ Don’t say that to a woman in the Marshall Islands,” says Erik Hagberg, who should know.
Hagberg, a 29-year-old New Jersey native, is the enthusiastic CEO of Pacific Aquaculture Cooperatives International, a small company that has developed a proprietary method for sustainably farming sea cucumbers in the remote atoll waters of the South Pacific. In October, he flew to the Marshall Islands to oversee the latest stage of a venture that, if all goes as planned, may result in sea cucumbers being as common a sight in Park Avenue pantries as Beluga caviar. “We can feel it penetrating, on the edge of the collective consciousness,” he said recently over drinks. “It’s there, and it’s going to pop.”
While popular in Asia, sea cucumbers are almost unknown in the United States. According to Hagberg, a sea cucumber is more than just a sexual euphemism: it’s a powerful protein supplement; it’s both an aphrodisiac and a libido booster; it can be used to promote skin healing and fight arthritis, cancer, and HIV. “You can also use it in chutneys,” he says.
If there’s any American city likely to embrace a dietary supplement that also goes well with chicken tikka masala, it is New York. As such, the Manhattan market will be a particularly important one for Hagberg to capture. He plans to start small—placing his product in select restaurants, selling small ramekins of granulated sea cucumber in health food stores—and build a following among health-conscious vitaminheads.
The granulated, deyhdrated samples Hagberg produced tasted like a cross between squid and oyster, and resembled nothing so much as deep green aquarium rocks. Hagberg plans to familiarize Americans with his product by means of clever marketing—he has considered selling his product under the name “Ginseng of the Sea,” and his hand-drawn logo features three lusty island women paddling a canoe. (If nothing else, the product should appeal to those libidinous souls desperately seeking some extra oomph in the bedroom.) PAC’s sea cucumbers will also come in different varieties, in hopes of engendering flavor loyalty among consumers. ‘“Oh, I like curry fish!’ ‘No, I like lotus fish!’” he said, mimicking an imaginary dialogue between two devoted customers.
Although up to now Hagberg has financed his business ventures through personal investments, he is confident that he will find good fortune. A recent taste test at the Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C. made a believer out of Ambassador Gunnar Lund, a noted caviar aficionado. He is negotiating purchase orders with various East Coast restaurants, including Hook in D.C., and S. Dynasty in Manhattan. (Not Aquavit—yet.) And, in the islands, there is tangible proof of his success. “I can tell things are taking off because I used to live in a one-person tent,” he said. “Now my tent sleeps ten.”
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