“I never saw an Arctic char/
I never hope to see one/
But from the pictures in the book/
I’d rather see than eat one.”
Okay. I owe Arctic char an apology. It’s a pretty fish, with flesh similar to the salmon’s, that is pink. What I really don’t plan to ever eat again, after reading about it in The New York Times this week, is tilapia, but the word didn’t fit the meter.
According to Seafood Watch, a program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Arctic char is raised in land-based, ecologically regulated farms. It contains the omega-3 oils that are good for you and is a good substitute for salmon or trout. I hear it’s become a hit here on the summer party circuit. On the other hand, farmed tilapia isn’t very good for you, and the fish farms in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Ecuador, where it is raised in huge quantities, are destroying natural lakes.
I admit to a deep-rooted prejudice in favor of wild — local — fish. Unfortunately, the slow-food movement hasn’t really hit the fish industry yet, and it’s long overdue.
Laura Donnelly, The Star’s food and restaurant writer, recently described Silvia Lehrer’s new book, “Savoring the Hamptons,” in these pages. Ms. Lehrer is a devotee of Slow Food International, and the foods and recipes in the book are organized by the seasons in which they are locally vailable. (Yes, I know you can find fairly good strawberries “from away” in the markets here in months other than June, but, even if you don’t care about the carbon footprint of the foods you buy, a delicious Wainscott strawberry is worth waiting for. And, P.S.: Check the label on the crate, if you can; at a high-end emporium nearby, we’ve seen a “local strawberries” sign slapped on berries pulled from a box shipped from across the country.)
A similar book could be filled with information about and recipes for fish that pass this way, and I wish someone would take it on. The truth is, the East End of Long Island has a greater variety of fish in inshore and offshore waters than anywhere else on the Eastern Seaboard. Air and water temperatures are more moderate here than to the north or south, and the Gulf Stream, which carries large species, is not far away.
I wasn’t familiar with fish when I first came here. We didn’t eat much of it at home when I was growing up. In the dining hall of the college I went to, you couldn’t see or taste the difference between breaded and baked fish and veal cutlet. Until I was treated to bay scallops in an expensive Manhattan restaurant, I didn’t know they existed.
But, getting married and coming to live here — it’s some 50 years ago now, when there were more baymen around — I dove into the culture and ate porgies, blowfish, bluefish, and striped bass constantly, and with delight. As our inshore fisheries declined and as the effects of overfishing and ocean pollution became better known in the past decade or two, I became more cautious about which offshore varieties I chose, but, to this day, I see absolutely no reason to buy or eat any seafood that isn’t local.
Arm yourself with a little knowledge: Just because the grocer says the bass was caught here, if it’s midwinter, you should doubt his word; if a scallop is the size of a hockey puck, you can bet it didn’t come out of the bay. Why bother with anything else when the freshest and most varied creatures of the deep are nearby — as fresh as can be? The world really is our oyster.