It started out as a tough summer for Northeasterners hooked on fresh native catches. An unusually virulent strain of red tide clammed up clammers, putting the kibosh on the traditional local fried-clam plate. For many New Englanders, this was tantamount to forgoing summer altogether.
Americans are extraordinarily passionate about seafood. From Seattle salmon to Louisiana crayfish and from Maine lobster to Gulf Coast catfish, local catches are an important part of the unique heritage of our various regions, and a tremendous source of pride for locals. Entire economies rise and fall with the tides - just ask Newfoundlanders how business has been since the cod fishery there went belly-up in the early 1990s.
The U.S. Dept. of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year Americans ate a record 16.3 lbs. of fish and shellfish per person in 2003 - a 4 percent increase over the figure for the prior year. Five years earlier, the report notes, U.S. seafood consumption sat at 14.9 lbs. per capita. The NOAA pegged total U.S. consumption at 4.7 billion lbs., including 4.6 lbs. per person in canned fish (mostly tuna) and a record 4 lbs. of shrimp consumed per person.
But as we eat more seafood overall, we avoid "strange waters." Our narrow selection misses many available and delicious delicacies of the deep. In 2003, Boston chef Jasper White provided a list of his favorite fish of the moment to a trade publication. I wasn't even vaguely familiar with two of his entries. White's selections included Arctic char, sea bream, Atlantic wolf fish, tambaqui and tilapia. The American Tilapia Assn. (yes, there is such a group!) will have you know that the object of its affections is now the sixth most popular seafood consumed in the U.S.
Show your social conscience
When exploring new seafood opportunities, industry must also make a commitment to ecological responsibility. This is a critically important issue in the minds of many seafood lovers. Besides, with most popular sea offerings overfished to points surpassing critical depletion, it is only good business sense to focus on sustainability.
What's behind our hesitancy to try new varieties of seafood? For starters, Americans tend to be a bit more skittish about seafood than they are about unusual cuts of beef. After all, a steer is a steer.
Our waters produce so many different denizens we want to know what we're getting into before we commit. Of course, the American seafood industry has been slow to steer the diversity boat. How many unfamiliar varieties of fish appear in the supermarket or on the restaurant menu? The few that do break the surface are not always accompanied by a helpful debriefing on the specimen's flavor profile, texture, country or region of origin or any other information.
We've all had wonderful experiences with new fish, but many of us have also been left with a bad taste in our mouths at some point, either from a substandard product or simply an unusual taste or texture.
Most of us know the seafood we enjoy. People who appreciate flaky, white-flesh varieties with delicate flavors may be turned off by oily bluefish. Those who favor great, thick swordfish or ahi tuna steaks may not care for wafer-thin filets of skate. Marketers need to do more to educate us about new varieties to give us the confidence to dive in head-first.
As the most delicate of proteins, seafood needs to be handled with extraordinary care. It's only truly edible when it's prepared or processed fresh. Through the years, manufacturers have gotten much better at processing technologies (such as flash-freezing) and shipping (air freighting) to ensure it travels well and can make it to the plate with its sensory quality intact.
Today, chefs like Bradley Ogden are able to serve delicacies like fresh Ipswich clams in northern California, and the quality is every bit the equal of what Bostonians relish 3,000 miles away.
Improved processing methods will make distinctive but fragile local catches available nationwide. Better education and marketing will raise diners' comfort level for these newfound varieties. Add to that the growing awareness of the health benefits of seafood (think omega-3 fatty acids) and manufacturers have an ocean of promising opportunities with new and delicious species of fish.