Can Trash Fish Make It in the Midwest?

Chicago has had a long love affair with fresh fish and seafood. When this land was last wild, hundreds of species of fish and shellfish inhabited the Great Lakes and the watershed's rivers, streams and estuaries. Railroads and refrigerated rail cars supplied the oyster craze of the late 19th century, and 20th century transportation made available literally anything money could buy. In recent decades, seafood farming, or aquaculture, has brought down costs for a handful of commoditized species such as salmon and tiger shrimp, and our appetite for seafood continues to grow.

The oceans and fish are paying a price, not because the oceans can't provide the abundance the earth's hungry population requires, but because consumer trends and conservation knowledge and action are often not in sync. We've seen in recent decades as some fish such as redfish and monkfish, once tossed aside as garbage by fishermen, came into favor and saw their populations plummet before conservation experts could get definitive data on what was happening. Some long-popular fish such as grouper and red snapper are just now clawing back from the brink since fishing communities and environmental organizations stepped in to save them.

The good news is there's still plenty of delicious fish in the ocean, and some of Chicago's top chefs are about to show you the tasty possibilities of some fish you may never have heard of. We're calling it a "trash fish" dinner because for generations these fish were often caught in nets or hooks along with others, only to be tossed back overboard, dead in the water as garbage because the fishermen either believed they couldn't sell it or get a price high enough to justify taking up precious space in the cargo hold.

You may have never seen kingfish, triggerfish, Spanish mackerel, bluefish or Asian carp on a menu, much less conger eel or speckled sea trout. Chefs Bruce Sherman, Paul Kahan, Paul Virant, Erling Wu-Bower, Sarah Stegner, George Bumbaris, Patrick Sheerin, Michael Sheerin, Laura Piper and myself are ready to show off these precious gems of the ocean. Each time we choose to eat an underutilized species instead of an Atlantic salmon or an over-fished cod, swordfish, or bluefin tuna, we give these stressed populations a break and discover anew the possibilities in our oceans and lakes.

Historically, the species we are serving at this dinner have been called trash fish by fishermen and the seafood industry. As chefs, we feel passionately about anything wholesome and nutritious that can feed people -- it's our business. We hate the term "trash fish." This dinner is the first step in banishing that term from the seafood industry for good, and making these misunderstood species a staple in our diets. When we diversify and balance what we take from the ocean, we can enjoy new delights while preserving old ones. Personally, we've eaten all the tuna we need for a lifetime. We're going with the sand dabs.

Paul Fehribach is the chef and owner of Big Jones in Chicago and on the national board of Chefs Collaborative; Michelle Parker is Vice President of Great Lakes and Sustainability at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.