Saturday, February 23, 2008

Something's Fishy At Saveur

I like fish. I don't eat it as much as I used to, but when Sockeye salmon season rolls around it's hard to resist!

So I was excited to see Saveur magazine's March issue include a short essay on the flavor characteristics of fish - and what makes one fish taste differently from another.
"More often than not, what we perceive in varying measure as a "strong" or "mild" taste in a fish is partly a function of decomposition: an amalgam of odor and flavor compounds that comes from the buildup of amino acids (most notably, a malodorous compound called trimethylamine), ammonia, fats, and other organic substances in the flesh of a fish after it dies."
- Francis Percival, chef, fishmonger, and writer based in London.
Mr. Percival says that saltwater fish accumulate more fishy-tasting amino acids than freshwater fish - which they use to counterbalance a salty ocean environment.

And that the fat in fattier fish (herring, salmon), lends a lot of flavor if the fish is fresh, but because it's mostly the unstable polyunsaturated kind, begins to break down (goes rancid) very soon after a fish dies.

And that the flesh of bottom feeders (catfish, carp) often taste of the mud and algae present in the water where they lurk.

And that the flesh of some large fish (tuna, swordfish) actually tastes better after the fish achieves rigor mortis - about a week after it dies. (Sushi chefs prefer the taste of these "aged" fish.)

And other variables affecting taste: "How was it caught? What temperature was the water? Was it stressed before it died, or was it swiftly dispatched? What had it been eating? How was it iced?"

So far, so good. Kind of. Where was mention of mercury in fish? And other pollutants such as fire retardants and PCBs? Nowhere did I see mention of the FDA's restrictions on fish consumption, especially for pregnant women and children. And what about factory fish farms, and their attendant environmental destruction and animal cruelty?

Before I get too ghastly (something I may do in a future post anyway), I want to stay positive for a minute. Because I like fish. And I would eat more fish ... If I could find some that were mercury- and pesticide-free, raised with little negative impact to the environment, and humanly harvested.

Below are some fish photos that accompanied this article. See if you can identify them. (Click for larger. Fish are not to scale ;) Answers in footnotes.)

Here's Where Something Really Got Fishy At Saveur

The article was accompanied by an information box that pictured the 10 fish above, with a few descriptive sentences for each. It was written by Saveur's senior editor Beth Kracklauer. This is where my propaganda radar really began to perk. I'd love to know who provided Beth Kracklauer her information.

Here's what she said about catfish:
"Because catfish, like other freshwater fish, hydrate themselves by absorbing water through their skin, wild specimens sometimes taste of the algae or mud present in the water where they're caught. Most catfish in this country are farm-raised in environmentally sustainable, closed-system ponds, so their flesh is consistently sweet and pure tasting."
Why even mention wild catfish when they are virtually impossible to buy? And "sweet and pure tasting"? From what I found, almost all catfish in this country live in filth:

About flounder:
"Each variety [of flatfish] has its distinctive character - grey sole, for instance, has a deep, mineral richness, and winter flounder is reminiscent of shellfish - but all have the subtlety and succulence typical of bottom-hugging flatfish."
"Mineral richness." No doubt about that. Bottom dwellers are chronically exposed to heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and other pollutants.1 In fact pollution has entirely killed off winter flounder in the NJ/NY harbor near where I live.2

Finally, one of those fish above is so dangerously high in mercury, perilously overfished, and so environmentally destructive when harvested that the National Resources Defense Council, as well as the FDA and EPA recommends it not be eaten by women and children at all.

What do you think? Do articles that promote the eating of fish have a responsibility to discuss the risks associated with that eating?
Answers to fish quiz: 1. Salmon, 2. Cod, 3. Tuna, 4. Herring, 5. Catfish, 6. Sea Bass, 7. Trout (relative of salmon), 8. Red Snapper, 9. Flatfish (e.g. flounder), 10. Swordfish.
1 NOAA: Analyses of Elements in Sediment and Tissue Cycles I to V (1984-88)
2 NOAA: Winter Flounder (Pleuronectes americanus)
Photo of fish ponds from

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