My niece, Soph, is spending the week with her friend “down the shawa” as they say in New Jersey. Lucky Soph! See, my sister was right; send your kid to an expensive private school, so they get a superior education, meet the right people, and then they’ll get to spend their vacations with rich friends in nice places! She’so smart.
So Soph is down the shawa, and she texts me the other day and said, “I ate the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten last night!” Wow, I thought, this must be something really special because Soph ate her first year of solid foods in Rome, and has traveled and eaten all over the place and has ME as her aunt, and has the best palate of any kid I know, so I thought, wow. Wonder what it was? She’s down the shawa, maybe someone caught a gorgeous striper or fluke and grilled it over oak wood and seaweed on the beach and it was so perfect and pristine and they ate it with flaky sea salt and the best olive oil and tiny sweet clams and local corn and tomatoes in some kind of food-and-wine magazine seaside summer orgy food wet dream…I got really excited, as you can see. So I texted back, “wow, what?” And Soph, oh Soph, I had such high hopes for you, texts back “It was tilapia stuffed with crabmeat and spinach!”
Well, I would have cried onto my Iphone if it was waterproof. Tilapia. King of the farmed, Foodiness™ fish. The free-range chicken nugget of the sea, the soy chip, the whole wheat Poptart, of the sea. Tilapia is the shittiest, nastiest, blandest, crappiest garbage farmed fish on the planet. And yet, it’s become the default fish on nearly every menu and in every seafood counter. It’s everywhere, in everything. It’s mainly farmed in China and Costa Rica, is filled with antibiotics, fungicides, fertilizer and pesticides, and is fed 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 living it up on Cape May, amirite? But there’s Soph, out to dinner at some overpriced, Jersey shore fish-house, all done up in decorative nets and glass buoys, (the restaurant, not Soph) with brass rails and nautical theme tchotchkas, sitting down to dinner with Nora’s family. And what’s on the menu? Oh let’s take a guess…Salmon? 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 a suburban restaurant without the ubiquitous block of seared rare tuna, probably illegally caught in the Philippines by Chinese boats, in defiance of all international restrictions on tuna fishing, flash frozen at sea and sent over to be carved up and sold by Sysco, let’s see, what else looks good on today’s catch, shrimp? Broiled, scampi, fried? Farmed, farmed and farmed. In Thailand, again with the antibiotics, the chemicals, pesticides, pollution…
Oh wait, there’s a flounder special! Flounder is local to NJ, let’s have 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? Ok, 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 grilled mackerel, who grew up in Iowa and hate fish for a reason, they’ve never really EATEN fish, good fish, fresh and not broiled with margarine and paprika until it crumbles to dust. And I can’t even ADDRESS the “stuffed with crabmeat and spinach” business, because A: again, what year is it? And B: Really? Crabmeat? More like processed crabstix, with an X on the end, because real, fresh crabmeat is up to $25/lb so I ‘m sure Cap’n Fred’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 Steinbeckian, Cannery row fantasy collective memory, doesn’t mean that that’s how we should keep on eating. I went to cannery row last summer, which is now basically an amusement park-seedy Disney recreation of Steinbeck’s pier, and what was being served? TILAPIA!!!!! I need a break. Off to the shelter, fire up the grill!