Crafting effective responses to problems faced by the world’s oceans requires that we grasp the social drivers compelling harmful patterns of ocean use. One of the disquieting consequences of fishing is reduction in the mean trophic level of commercially captured species (fishing down the food web). While the trophic level of fisheries catch has declined in nearly two-thirds of the world’s ecosystems, the social drivers underpinning this have been assumed or asserted, not quantified. Here, we examine patterns in seafood cookbooks as a means to gain insight into the social drivers underlying the changes observed in the trophic level of capture fisheries. We searched libraries in Washington and Oregon, U.S. for seafood cookbooks published within the U.S. Pacific Northwest. We uncovered 3092 recipes published between 1885 and 2007 that met our criteria. We found large increases in average trophic level of recipes over time (‘eating up the food web’). This occurred largely because low trophic level invertebrates decreased in their frequency, while the representation of high-trophic level rockfish (Sebastes spp.), increased. We contend that cookbooks reveal much about the societal value of high trophic level species. Ultimately, sustainability of fisheries and marine ecosystems is not solely a biophysical problem – sustainability must also include the viability of socially shaped relationships between people and the sea. Knowledge of the drivers underlying the pattern of ‘eating up the food web’ should aide in developing policies that move beyond managing pressures (fishing), but also deal with the social drivers that generate those pressures.