One year ago this week, I was in Petersburg, Alaska. I thought of it today not because of the anniversary but because I was in search of lunch. I found lots of local menus with farmed salmon sandwiches or fried whitefish. It's summer! I want wild salmon or any local, wild fish that hasn't been overwhelmed by batter.
Sure, I could get a lobster roll, but I prefer my lobster warm and dredged in melted butter. In Petersburg I ate fresh, local, wild fish at every meal (except one amazing breakfast of Julianne Curry's Swedish pancakes). Today I ended up with a turkey club for lunch, while listening to seagulls fight on the rooftop next door. That's just not right. The ocean is right there!
Then a food-photographer friend of mine posted a beautiful shot of a fish dish to her Facebook page. Her caption included the phrase, "Yes, I said cusk."
Have you ever had it, or even heard of it? It's a lovely whitefish that's part of the Northeast groundfish multispecies complex. It doesn't carry the same cache as haddock or cod, but it can be used interchangeably for those species.
The reason this struck me is because I've noticed a significant change in the last year since Maine's locavore movement homed in on underutilized species. Just last week I was talking with a local food writer about how that movement has bumped up the price for hake.
What this speaks to is the effectiveness of consumer education and marketing. I would consider the marketing of underutilized species a resounding success, but it's still bypassing a large section of the populace. So often the best marketing efforts reach the white-tablecloth restaurants and then perhaps influence what those customers choose to cook at home. But why do I have to be at a fine-dining establishment to get grilled fish when I can find chicken cooked every which way wherever I go?
The little pubs and sandwich shops where I was looking to get take-out today are either going to take longer to try their hand at underutilized species or they'll keep cod, farmed salmon (or tilapia) on their menus because it's easier. The restaurant owners and their customers know those varieties. They don't have to be sold on them because the big aquaculture firms have made their inroads.
And yet, local seafood always has been and still ought to be a food for the masses. Time was when every coastal Mainer lived on strings of salt cod through the winter. We love to tell the tale of the once-lowly lobster being used to feed prison inmates.
Cusk is sometimes called the poor-man's cod, and when it comes to cod, we are poor — in landings, anyway. If we can make an effort to promote sales of underutilized species to the masses, then we can keep fishermen fishing even when they're not allowed to land enough of the prize fish to pay their fuel bills.
And we might get to enjoy a fresh fish sandwich in the meantime.