My niece, Sophie, spent last week "down the shore" as they say in New Jersey. Her friend has a beach house, and they invited her to visit. Lucky! See? My sister was right; send your kid to an expensive private school, they get a superior education, meet the right people, and then get to spend their vacations with rich friends in nice places! My mom always said she was the smarter daughter.
So Soph was down the shore, and one night she texted me this: "I ate the most delicious thing I've ever eaten last night!" Wow, I thought, this must be something because Soph ate her first year of solid food in Rome, has traveled and eaten all over, has me as her aunt, and has the best palate of any kid I know, so I thought again, wow. Wonder what it was?
I imagined maybe someone pulled in a gorgeous striped bass or fluke right off the beach, and they roasted it over driftwood and seaweed on the beach and it was fresh and pristine and they ate it with flaky salt and the best olive oil, tiny sweet clams, local corn and tomatoes in some kind of food magazine seaside summer wet dream... I got really excited, as you can see. So I texted back, "wow, what?" And Soph... I had such high hopes, texts back, "It was tilapia stuffed with crabmeat and spinach!"
Well, I cried into my quinoa. Tilapia. King of the farmed, Foodiness fish. The free-range chicken nugget of the sea, the soy chip, the whole-wheat pop-tart, of the ocean. Tilapia is the nastiest, blandest, crappiest, garbage farmed fish on the planet. And yet, it's become the default fish on nearly every menu and at every seafood counter. It's everywhere, in everything. It's farmed, mainly in China and Latin America, and is filled with fungicides, fertilizer and pesticides, from its diet of corn, grains, and fish meal. It's garbage fish, fed garbage. And yet, it's everywhere. It's the boneless, skinless chicken breast of fish, but even worse. Do people not see that?
So there's poor Soph, well not really, (I mean she's down the shore, amirite?) out to dinner at some overpriced, Jersey shore fishhouse, all done up in decorative nets and glass buoys, (the restaurant, not Soph) with brass rails and nautical theme tchotchkas, sitting down to dinner.
And what's on the menu? Oh let's take a guess... Umm, salmon? Fer sure. Farmed salmon, from Chile, most likely. But the menu will say Atlantic salmon, because you can say whatever you want, on a menu. And probably grilled swordfish, possibly locally caught, but more likely not, and tuna, of course, Wouldn't be an American seaside restaurant without the ubiquitous block of seared rare tuna, probably illegally caught in defiance of all international restrictions on tuna fishing, flash frozen at sea and shipped to us. And let's see, what else, maybe shrimp? Broiled, scampi, fried? Farmed, farmed and farmed. Maybe in Thailand, again with the antibiotics, the chemicals, pesticides, pollution...
Oh wait, there's a flounder special! Flounder is local to New Jersey, let's order that! Quickly sautéed in butter 'til the edges are crisp, mmm, I love flounder. What? How is it made? Broiled with paprika? Yuck, what year is this? Okay, maybe that's a little harsh, I'll give them the B of the D, but then what about the effing tilapia?
And who let my niece eat that? Tilapia is fish for non-fish people. People who've never been exposed to a perfectly sautéed flounder filet or deftly grilled mackerel, who grew up in Iowa and hate fish for a reason, because they've never really EATEN fish; good fish, fresh and not broiled with margarine and paprika until it crumbles to dust.
I can't even ADDRESS the "stuffed with crabmeat and spinach" business, because A: what year is it? And B: Really? Crabmeat? More like processed crabstix, with an X on the end, because real, fresh crabmeat is over $25/lb so I'm sure Cap'n Billy's Seafood Bar and Grille isn't using the real deal, and C: just yuck.
Ok, ok, before you all start with the hate mail, telling me I'm an elitist, just stop. I am, but for good reason. It's not about me; it's about the fish, the poor, overfished fish. And our Fantasy Island way of still insisting on eating it when we're by the sea, or anywhere else. Just because I'm at a shore resort, where historically, or traditionally, you'd get to eat the local catch, hauled in off the docks and sold right to the kitchens, in some Steinbeck-ian, Cannery Row fantasy collective memory, doesn't mean that that's how we should keep on eating. I went to Cannery Row last summer, now basically an amusement park-seedy recreation of Steinbeck's pier, and what was being served? TILAPIA!
The nutritional-industrial complex is telling us to eat MORE FISH, but all we eat are all the WRONG KINDS of fish. The big, overfished fish, the toxic farmed fish, the not-even-really-fish fish, in the case of tilapia, instead of eating the little, shiny, oily fish, which are the good ones, but are now ALSO overfished. I've been over this before, this isn't our first time at the Foodiness-Fishiness rodeo, and there are sources for information about which fish to eat, and which fish to avoid. Do your homework, people!
So after our text conversation I felt bad, because poor Soph didn't know better and she probably ordered that because it was the least expensive item on the menu and she's polite. She's fifteen, we can forgive her transgressions.
I however, have had an excellent summer of fish. Here's why. There is a classification of fish called the scombroids. They are the oily, dark-fleshed fish that have shiny silver skin and are super-fast swimmers. They're also the highest in omega-3's, the good oils we get from fish. Got that? From. Fish. Not from supplements or orange juice or cookies. (But also from walnuts, flax seeds, chia, and other plants) The scombroids are tunas, bluefish, marlin, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, the silvery, fast-swimming guys that the Japanese call hikari mono, or shiny fish.
I don't eat tuna anymore, but I love mackerel and sardines, anchovies and herring. And, conveniently, these are fish that are still plentiful, and, unlike tuna, not poisoned by mercury. And, I love bluefish.
As a kid on Long Island, we fished all summer for all different fish, but the summer's big-fish event was when the blues were running. Kids weren't taken along to catch bluefish, since they ran at night, and were big and strong and vicious, it was just for the men. Never mind that my father is barely 5'2 and 125 lbs, he fished for blues, with our drunk neighbor Bob, at night. And In the way that time distorts memory, I remember eating bluefish every single night, of every summer, from 1968-1982, or until my parents divorced and we switched to Lean Cuisine and Tab, but only temporarily. When my mom got her act back together we cooked again. Just please let the record show that.
I hadn't eaten bluefish in decades, after hearing about the PCB chemical contamination levels in them, dumped into the New York waters for decades, the PCBs settled on the bottom in a thick sludge and got into the fatty tissues of bottom feeders, which works its way up into the bigger carnivorous fish, like the blues. In all my restaurant cooking years, we never once served bluefish, either. It wasn't popular, in the 90's people wanted swordfish and salmon, red snapper, sea bass... but as those fish stocks declined, or became problematic, chefs started turning to other, lesser know or unpopular species, and suddenly, a few years ago bluefish was BACK. Still has the PCB problem, but I only eat it a few times a summer.
Bluefish's smaller cousin, the mackerel, is my favorite fish, and a few weeks ago I was at the Union Square farmers' market, shopping for tomato plants. All the plants were either too big or too small, and in my goldilocks-like annoyance I wandered over to the Montauk fish sellers to see if they had a mackerel for my grill. Fresh out, I was told, but he had a small bluefish, did I want that? How small is small? I asked, remembering three-footers, the same size as me when I was eight, (we practically could have shared clothes, if they were a little fatter, as opposed to now, when I'm barely a 5-footer) About two pounds, I was told. I'll TAKE IT! I shouted, just scale it, gut it, and I'll take it whole! Well, I grilled that hikari-mono beauty whole, made a little sauce of goat-milk yogurt, garlic, preserved lemon and mint, and we picked those bones clean like the scavengers we humans truly are. It was absolutely perfect (and way better than how we ate it back home, broiled, in the oven, kind of overcooked and dry). This was juicy, perfect, with crispy skin just shy of charred and that sauce...o mg.
So a few weeks later, in anticipation of summer-house guests I wanted more bluefish, but this time nope, only mackerel. Two left. Whole. I'll TAKE THEM! I screamed. So, two whole macks went on the grill, and eight big thumbs up all around from the dinner gang. And then last week visiting friends in Delaware, we wanted to grill fish. Their local fish store sucks; it sells tilapia, already stuffed with crabstix and has Fox news on a TV going all day. So we went to their local upscale chain supermarket, which, to my dismay, had the usual suspects. Farmed branzino, wild salmon for $300/lb, a few clams, and not much else. Nothing local? I asked. Nope. What's that? I pointed to a large, shiny fish that looked familiar. Oh yeah, a bluefish, the guy said. From where, I asked, Delaware? Nope, from New Jersey, not local, (we were three miles from the NJ border)... I'll TAKE IT! I screamed. Whole, just gutted, scaled and trimmed. You know the rest. On the grill, crispy skin, yogurt sauce, good beer, local corn, flaky sea salt... summer. No Foodiness, no fishiness, no crab stuffing, no farmed fishy crappiness. Because if you're gonna eat fish, and you don't want to eat sh*t...