Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Fear Of Fish

YACHT--"Dystopia (The World Is On Fire)" (mp3)

The pervasive fear (or dislike--we hate what we fear) of fish is not all that hard to understand for someone of my generation. Raised on an only-occasional fish diet of casseroles or loafs that contained either canned tuna or canned salmon, a child didn't have too many encounters with fish, and, likely, none of them pleasant. Only my mother, among the people and restaurants I knew, had the ability or, really, patience to get the fishy taste out of a can of tuna.

On the rare occasions that an actual piece of "fresh" fish appeared on the dinner table, we all knew that we were doomed to an evening of conflict. My dad loved fish and doesn't have a good sense of smell and so every once in awhile we had to indulge his desire. But the problem with children is that they aren't going to willingly eat something that doesn't taste good to them. And they definitely aren't going to eat something that tastes dead. And, in those "clean your plate" years, their parents are going to try to make them do it anyway.

But kids are so full of life. Why would they want to eat something that was so clearly, noticeably, advertisingly dead?

That's what we're talking about, isn't it? That fishy smell? It smells dead. It smells like living creatures that have been out of the water too long and have started to turn. One experience with that smell and taste combo and you're pretty much done with fish. Maybe forever. My wife continues not to like salmon for that very reason. Of all of the fish you can get your hands on, salmon is the one most likely to taste fishy.

Each year, my daughter comes down to this condo in Florida with a friend. Inevitably, given the plethora of waterfront restaurants around here, the talk turns to fish. This year's friend was the most blunt of all:

ME: Ame, do you eat fish?
HER: I'm afraid of fish. They scare me. I don't really have anything to do with them. I don't get near them.

I don't think there will be any waterfront dining in the near future.

But, you know, you get into any group of people, especially adults, and it is almost a certainty that that one or more of them won't like fish. The phobia is pervasive, probably justified, and hard to counter. It can really shut down your options when you're in a place like New Orleans or Florida. It can really undermine suggestions that a healthy diet should be based around fish as a primary protein.

The end-around is seafood. Plenty of people who didn't like fish will, like me, find their way back to sea through 2 related paths: 1) shellfish, and 2) frying. Especially if you put the two together. My parents convinced me to try fried shrimp, which back in the 60's, was a legitimate entree in an upscale restaurant, and then crab cakes and then grilled shrimp, and, of course, lobster. Fry something or dip it in enough butter, and, it will taste good. Plus, McDonald's, for all their flaws, made the fish sandwich a pervasive fast food offering. Which makes the 3rd related path: cheese. Let's not just fry fish. Let's put cheese on it. And tartar sauce.

Once you realize you can eat fish, you can order dishes that have crab piled on top of them, probably with some kind of buttery sauce. But the great irony is that to get people to like fish, it has to not taste like fish. Which isn't really true. It has to not taste like what they think fish tastes like. Which is fishy. And, to this day, people like me take the first bite of their beautifully-prepared fish tentatively. Is it really fresh?

Had I not moved south nearly 30 years ago, I doubt I would have become a lover of fish. The shocking discovery that catfish and tilapia, whether fried or not, didn't taste like fish opened the door. From there, getting to taste other fresh offerings--the redfish or drum in New Orleans, the grouper in Florida, whatever was on the menu at the Bonefish Grill (best chain in America?)--gets one to the point where they will order a piece of fish for its own sake, for its own taste. For fresh fish, like most great foods, is at its absolute best when prepared simply, not when hidden under sauce.

Still, I know people in my Southern neighborhood, older than I am, who gave up on fish 50 years ago. Certainly, they have not let it touch their lips willingly in the interim. I doubt anything can change that at this point. Which seems a shame in our increasingly-global American cuisine.

The funny thing is that my daughter and her fish-hating friends do eat fish. Sushi, after all, is the new fried shrimp, the new gateway to the sea. Put small pieces of fish in a roll with some cucumber and some cream cheese, maybe with some soy, ginger, and wasabi, and, hey, that's not too bad. Plus, call it sushi and maybe people will forget it's fish. So, I doubt we'll be having grouper on the wharf this week, but I can guarantee you that we'll be eating rolls at Bushido.


Anonymous said...

never had that problem.

We grew up eating brim and crappy out of the lake.

Just bought some lake trout which I will soak in egg, flour, and pan fry in canola oil this evening. Very tasty.

I know what you are saying about the kids though. The kids barely like fish sticks.

BeckEye said...

I've never been a big seafood fan. I do like some fish though - mainly tuna, salmon and swordfish. Everyone likes cod, especially when it's fried. You could fry a tennis shoe and it would taste like fried anything else.

I don't get sushi. I never had any interest in trying it but some of my friends begged me to try it last year when I still lived in NYC. (Everyone in NYC eats sushi because it's so damn hip.) So, I tried it and it wasn't offensive. But it wasn't anything. It was the most bland food I'd ever tasted. (I didn't have the roll, just the raw that sashimi?) So then they were like, "Well you have to dunk it in the wasabi sauce." So, it's not necessarily the fish that people like; it's the sauce. Just like with lobster. Oh, it's wonderful if you drown it in butter.

troutking said...

Fish are meant to be caught, photographed, kissed and released, not eaten.