Crapper Snapper and Slimehead

I’ve had my fill...where’s the beef?

There's a lot of finger-pointing when it comes to fishing these days. Since I have already picked on “sportsmen” that stuff their coolers with bait-sized tuna and blowhards that bet on billfish, I figure the seafood industry deserves a tip of the hat for attempting to purge the ocean of anything they can convince landlubbers to taste. In the hopes of leaving more than an old boot behind for my grandkids to catch, I suggest you consider that we are what we eat—I have!

My suspicion regarding the consumption of seafood actually began with earthworms. I could not conceive of eating any animal, finned or otherwise, that would eat what seemed to me little more than a slithering brown intestine. My father would purchase them at the bait shop in a cardboard container so tightly packed that they oozed out the sides like week-old Chinese food. Inspired by my disgust, he delighted in tilting his head back and placing a worm on his forehead. “This one’s named Willy,” he would joke, before impaling it on his hook. Curiously, the slime-encased eels we managed to dredge out of the sour seas of Long Island Sound seemed little more than a larger version of my bait. Since a worm-like eel is a hard sell, seafood marketeers prefer Unagi, and when it’s smeared with wasabi or fried beyond recognition, who’s to know?

I once had a taste for yellowtail snapper. The snapper is a pleasant-looking fish that is fond of shrimp—a significant improvement over worms. I had my suspicions, though. The fact that snapper favor chum bags full of putrefied fish gurry was troubling, and for the longest time I wondered why they congregated beneath moored boats as though they were shade trees. I discovered the grim reality on a snapper-fishing foray. Snapper were thumbing their noses at a perfectly disgusting sack of chum and swarming around the “leftovers” of a Mexican dinner passed accidentally over the side by a fellow angler who was not familiar with the vessel’s marine sanitation device. The image of fish with bits of toilet paper streaming from their mouths has never left me. Is it snapper meunière or manure?

I'll admit that I still have a taste for toothy pelagics. I have filleted my share of dolphin, wahoo, and tuna— that's mahi mahi, ono, and ahi in Yuppie. I, of course, make sure the ones we eat are free of protozoans, acanthocephalans, nematodes, cestodes, copepods, and isopods. I'm sorry, you didn't know? These parasites have a taste for fish, as well. I also take care to clean and ice only the fish we eat, since I am not Norwegian and have no taste for lutefisk— which is aged like beef. Ever wonder how your fish dinner was delivered to the market? Was it properly processed and packed in ice by a licensed fisherman or was it swaddled in the local newspaper and baked in the trunk of Uncle Harry's Lincoln?

If you were a seasoned gastronome like Anthony Bourdain, you could look into the eyes of a fish and know its soul. You’d know, for example, that there’s no sole in Dover and that there is no fish named scrod in Boston or anywhere else. You could tell the difference between a scallop and skate wing and spot a shark fillet peddled as swordfish. You’d know whether butterfish, Chilean sea bass, and orange roughy are really oil fish, Patagonian toothfish, and slimehead. If you think that sounds bad, you should see them. They look like something Andrew Zimmern might eat.

Folks, do the fish a favor and have a hamburger. I am not religious in my choice of table fare but if there is an afterlife I would rather be a cow than a blowfish… make that a milk cow...Bon Appétit!