Telling ‘The Untold Story of Sushi’

Daniel Fromson spent years researching a controversial Korean church that had created a seafood empire. He reflects on the benefits of long-term reporting

The New York Times/November 22, 2021

By Daniel Fromson

In 2013, while I was on a reporting trip to coastal Massachusetts, a marina manager named Ray O’Neill led me through the gates of an enormous mansion. Perched on a cliff above Gloucester Harbor, it had served as a sort of spiritual fishing lodge for the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church. The walls of the foyer were blanketed with photographs: Mr. Moon pursuing bluefin tuna; Mr. Moon posing with a marlin; Mr. Moon holding a giant lobster, above the caption “Rev. & Mrs. Moon visit True World Foods in 1990 and show off the lobsters together.”

A controversial messianic figure better known for mass weddings and a tax-fraud conviction, Mr. Moon — who died in 2012 — wasn’t just a passionate fisherman. Starting in the 1970s, he urged countless followers like Mr. O’Neill to build a vast seafood empire, part of his broader vision to restore a fallen world. Their efforts often stagnated or collapsed, but a handful of Japanese followers created a nationwide wholesaler named True World Foods, which helped popularize sushi in America. It still dominates the industry and sells much of the raw fish we eat today.

Here was an entire secret history of sushi, one that grew deeper and more complex the closer I looked. Somehow, the reporting never stopped.

What began as a swing-for-the-fences proposal when I was still a full-time freelancer evolved, a few years and a few jobs later, into an assignment for The New York Times Magazine, whose staff I joined in 2015. Recently, that article, “The Untold Story of Sushi in America,”was finally published — the at-times-surreal compression of more than
half a decade of reporting into nine pages of the magazine’s Nov. 7 issue, plus an ambitious animated version online.

On the one hand, narrative magazine journalism is frequently an exercise in exactly this kind of compression. I’ll never forget the words of a college writing teacher who, offering the sort of metaphor at which writing teachers excel, compared the process to making maple syrup, because, in her telling, you need 40 gallons of sap to yield one gallon of syrup.

On the other hand, the ratio this time around felt more like 400 to one. It took many drafts and revisions to boil everything down — food and business and religion, past and present, the kingdom of heaven and the California roll — into a narrative about faith’s powers and limitations, and an unlikely way in which they shaped our world.

Inevitably, certain scenes and details didn’t fit for one reason or another. Reading the article, you’ll find no mention of my visit to an enormous mansion.

I interviewed Mr. O’Neill twice and then spent a day with him in Gloucester. For better or worse, the only direct result of all the stories and ideas he generously shared is three sentences near the article’s end, where he compares himself to a Japanese soldier stranded in the Pacific after World War II.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I would like to believe that all this research contributed to what the magazine’s creative director, Gail Bichler, has called the article’s “cinematic” quality — an attribute that helped inspire its digital presentation.

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This, too, was a time-intensive effort, featuring frame-by-frame animation by the artist Igor Bastidas. I’m also grateful to Kate LaRue, Jacky Myint, Blake Wilson and the other members of our design and digital teams who collaborated heroically on what became an eye-catching experiment in online storytelling.

Shortly before publication, I became increasingly aware of one last consequence of the long gestation: a feeling, stronger than ever, of what I owed to the more than two dozen past and present followers of Mr. Moon who entrusted me with their stories, only a fraction of whom are named or quoted in the article. Memorializing their lives with nuance and absolute accuracy felt critical.

And so I called Mr. O’Neill and asked him what exactly he meant when, as we left his church’s mansion in 2013, he compared himself to a Japanese soldier stranded in the Pacific.

His metaphor seemed to perfectly sum up the disappointments of all those followers whose sacrifices, often in pursuit of Mr. Moon’s seafood dreams, never built the triumphant future they sought. It was as if they had lost and didn’t know it.

But Mr. O’Neill told me this wasn’t his intended meaning.

It wasn’t that he had lost; it was that he was still fighting, still faithful to Mr. Moon’s vision, long after others had moved on. “Them principles I had in me when I started, I still have them principles in me now,” he said.

It took more than eight years to get his story right.

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