The Fish Story

Chew Like Your Wallet Depends On It; When Blowfish Ruled the Bay

By JAY MANN | Jul 03, 2018

CHEW LIKE YOU MEAN IT: After 30 years of this-here columnizing, it can get iffy coming up with ne’er-before-told subject matter. With that in tired mind, I proudly bring you one of the oddest subjects ever: How to chew your food, analytically speaking.

This segment stems from the rampant mislabeling of seafood, conning cluelessly chewing Americans out of billions of bucks per year. Aggravatingly angrifying is when mislabeling arrives via atmospherically priced seafood items presented at eateries. Fish markets and grocery stores are also no bargain when it comes to seafood labeling surprises.

Oceana.org pulls no punches, saying, “Despite growing concern about where our food comes from, consumers are frequently served a completely different type of fish than the one they paid for. As Oceana’s nationwide study and others demonstrate, seafood may be mislabeled as often as 26 to 87 percent of the time for commonly swapped fish such as grouper, cod and snapper, disguising fish that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.”

“Oceana’s testing results demonstrate that seafood fraud not only hurts our wallets, but also honest fishermen and businesses along the supply chain. These fraudulent activities also carry potentially serious concerns for our health as well as the well-being of our oceans and vulnerable fish populations.”

Now to the finger-pointing … and odd part.

As a cook for many years, I guarantee that a huge part of seafood mislabeling success rests in the mouths of the beholders, i.e. chewer. Bothersomely to chefs, many a diner can’t discern good seafood from shinola. And, I’d be right there among the shinola-eaters if I hadn’t been effectively schooled in proper chewing techniques, a subject I ate up.

Mastering the art of what most would call taste testing, I developed such a trained and qualified tongue that I became the seafood purchaser for a fairly swanky hotel restaurant in Hawaii. As such, I almost instantly became the bane of commercial fishermen supplying the hotel. Forsaking the established look-and-smell test of a product, I wouldn’t bite on a buy until I pan seared a small piece for a chew or two. How else can one get a taste for what the patrons will be served? When seafood missed the taste-bud mark, some big-ass purchases would be terminated. As you might guess, handing back a gran worth of product to a gnarly Hawaiian fisherman had its perils. That’s when my buddy Kimo would step in. Actually, he needed to only inch forward a wee bit and a peaceful easy feeling – for me – inched forward with him. It’s kinda cool how I don’t even need to describe Kimo in detail for you to get the big picture.

But back to the subject of proper chewing.

While there is no instantaneous way to develop a highly educated palette, seafood division, it only takes a little chewing practice to become a highly adequate seafood analyzer. What’s more, you likely already possess talented taste buds. It all comes down to advancing this already existing in-mouth aptitude, ready to distinguish between, say, farm-raised salmon – which, admittedly, can be decent – and wild-caught Alaskan salmon. Hint: The wild-caught simply oozes wonderfulness, compliments of its rich fats and oils.

The prime rule of chewing with critical intent is concentration; an attention to taste bud details. First bites are essential taste-testing times, akin to first sips of wine. It does take some effort.

Highly admittedly, such a focused mealtime concentration can be a bit much when all you want to do is settle down to an easygoing, nonjudgmental, noninterpretative meal. I feel you. If it’s more relaxing to insipidly wolf down whatever seafood has been served, go right ahead and pay a wallet load of money for dollar-a-pound tilapia being served as high-end grouper. In those cases, it helps to keep a goodly amount of wine close at hand. The tilapia thanks you.

If I’ve intrigued you into going the gourmet-ish route in analyzing the food just placed before you, it all comes down to simply tasting … as in really tasting. Here’s a shared-experience example: Think back to times when you readied yourself to try a brand-new food. Recall how you carefully moved it to the tongue, with the uncertainty factor putting your taste buds on high alert; tensed to interpret, analyze, scrutinize. You were unknowingly ultra-taste-testing at a professional level. Now, extend that mouth readiness to the “Chilean sea bass” steaming before you … at a $100-a-pound as-served proportion. If you must, ready the palette by envisioning first trying something like squid ink sauce. OK, so maybe that’s not the best example. Simply micro-manage the tasting of first bites – and, to only a somewhat lesser degree, the following bites. Voila, you’re a highly discerning diner, ready to offer, “Now, waiter, you’re telling me this is fresh Alaskan Chinook salmon? … Your nose is growing.” Then, you really put on the educated patron Ritz by chewing a couple more times and continuing, “In reality, I believe this to be farmed Atlantic salmon from … (taking a couple more chews) … from the Murmansk area of northwest Russia; filleted approximately three days ago.” Poor waiter is thinking, “Oh, hell, there goes my tip.” By the by, we import huge amounts of very tasty farmed salmon from Russia.

Anyway, taking first-tastes with all taste buds firing is the exact method used by oft-uppity food critiques. You can now do the same. Just don’t start bandying about nonsensically descriptive terms like – and I got these from food critic columns – toothsome, treacly, soporific, piquant, nectarous, lush, gustatory, dulcified and enough others to choke on.

Maybe the most chuckle-worthy food critic term was locally written. A self-ordained seafood “epicurean” described half-shelled clams as “briny.” You don’t say, Sherlock!

RUNDOWN: Fishing is good to excellent. Catching, on the other empty hand, should be backhanded one good. Flukers plying their drifts in much of Barnegat Bay are coming up short – or empty-hooked when shorts aren’t around. You might not suspect this skunkiness if you’ve seen some of the shop website photos of the fine doormats, one pushing 10 pounds. However, I have to write with the preponderance of evidence. My verdict is the bay is guilty of hiding flatties … in an accessory-during-the-fact manner.

Making fluking matters iffier still, the sun is doing a major beatdown, heating the bay into the 80s. That forces flatties into deeper bay water – and out of the frenzy-feeding mode. The hot-up – far beyond a mere warm-up – is anchored in place. Flatties are already fleeing into the cooler inlets and ocean. While that would seemingly put them at-the-ready in inlets and the ocean, radical water temperature swings – with ocean-bottom waters still in the 50s, even 40s – can put fluke in a minor thermal-shock stupor, a low-eat stupor. It has something to do with digestion problems when water temps swing all over tarnation. Zones with steady, fluke-friendly water temps are where the action is. Good hunting.

THE SKIES DECIDE: By the by, both our bay and ocean temps are dictated solely by solar and wind influences. We do not have our very own Gulf Stream, or even a visiting Labrador Current. Instead, we got Old Sol doing all the manual labor. Solar energy alone is what kicks our beachline water into the dippable 70s. I took a 72-degree, mid-Island reading over the weekend. It’s only going up from there.

Fueling the current ocean water temp uprising is an ongoing stint of sizzlingness. If the just-in future forecasts play out, we’re in for 3H (hazy, hot, humid) conditions for all July. Above to much-above normal temperatures are being forecast for the entire summer … and across the entire nation – which, I’m pretty sure, includes us, pending any federal legal actions against New Jersey being a sanctuary state.

As to wind factors, they can single-windedly cause oceanside water temps to vacillate like mad. Should typical summer winds from the west and south blow like the dickens, they are famously able to blow away the tedious topside warm water layer, upwelling the hell out of toasty waters. Not that many years back, then-lifeguard supervisor Don Myers and I both officially recorded a midsummer ocean water temp that had upwelled down to 40!

THE ANSWER IS BLOWFISHING IN THE WIND: I’m being asked about blowfish, as in “Have they blown into town yet?” I checked around and nothing inflationary is showing, outside food prices.

I’m not always big on offering blowfish updates. I highly encourage waiting until post-spawn, later in the summer, to begin keeping these highly-tasty puffers.

As to what long-term sea temperature rise might do to this fun panfish, it’s unpredictable. It is easy to see that down south, in blowfish overwintering areas, there is virtually no commercial or recreational fishing pressure on them, due to their alleged toxicity – possibly wrongly alleged. When I caught puffer in the Banana River, Brevard County, Fla., I ate them, no sweat. OK, so maybe I first performed a couple chemical tests to rule out any ciguatera poison within the flesh. The truer test was in the downing. I consumed a slew of ’em, likely being the only person in the entire highly crowded state of Florida doing so.

UNSOLVED MYSTERY: It’s now an all-time baffler as to why this species went utterly ballistic up here back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Blowfish overran/overswam the bay. Many an older bayside dock still sports the protruding nail used to skin blowfish … by the hundreds.

I’m serious about “hundreds.” I attended a slew of “blowfish tail” parties, when some of us would zip out on bay and hook enough “tail” to feed throngs – while others of us would simultaneously run up to the beach to bring back another type “tail” … to liven the party. “Any of you girls like blowfish tails and coleslaw?” Katy bar the door. The way to beach bunnies’ hearts was through their stomachs. It’s probably best to leave the look of those stomachs frozen in time, so to speak.

Amazingly, it would take less than a couple hours of bay-top fishing to gather bucketsful of blowfish. We’d often drop a line down with half a dozen baited hooks. No hook would return un-blowfished. I still think that’s from whence came the famed multi-hook Boston mackerel rig.

Utterly true: You wouldn’t even need bait when using small, gold, beak hooks. Blowfish would use their bucktooth choppers to gnaw on the bare metal. You simply looked into the water, waiting to see one latch on … then stick it to ’em! They would so readily come to hook-and-line that it seemed they wanted to deliciously serve mankind … and deep-fried was to die for.

As we became more and more infernally infested with blowfish, scientific and anecdotal theories to explain the weird explosion also exploded forth. Theories quickly took a vindictive swing when research indicated the insatiably hungry puffer hoards were decimating our beloved fluke stocks. Photographic underwater evidence proved blowfish would routinely cripple tiny fluke by gnawing off their fins, before tearing the doomed young-of-year flatfish into bite-sized morsels. That meant war! Even going full guns against the hoards, we couldn’t make a dent in their numbers.

It was those numbers that made it utterly impossible to fish for fluke at the height of blowfish incursion. Those little buggers were simply too craftily speedy at bait-grabbing. Thinking back, we could have started jigging to out-maneuver the blowfish. However, jigs simply weren’t seen as fluke-getters. We highly underestimated the aggression of flatties.

My theory on the cause behind the puffer detonation was beyond my tender years. I proposed that something was amiss in the water. At the time, pollution-watching was turning from smoggy skies to the contaminated water. I’m still sticking with the likelihood that some bizarre whirlwind of interrelated pollution-related imbalances led to a unique marine ecosystem imbalance, one outrageously favoring the blowfish population.

As quickly as the puffers pulled in, they departed. Technically, they simply didn’t reshow one summer. Might they explosively reappear? If I’m right about the pollution cause, a repeat would seem highly unlikely. We now have an ability to detect bio-imbalances in the making. We can nip fish population explosions in the bud – unless we just happen to covet the overpopulating species enough to let it swim roughshod over the entire biosystem. But, I better not tred there.

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