WHY WON'T CANADIANS EAT FISH?
Forty kinds of fish that make other nations drool go begging here while a basic industry languishes and our cooks pass up some of the finest eating in the world
NOT long ago a Bay of Fundy fisherman got just enough for one hundred pounds of pollock to pay for one pound of beefsteak. The beefsteak, he reports, was so tough he couldn’t chew it.
This was an extreme case but it points up the fact that at a period when livestock is bringing unheard-of prices, and butchers are scouring the country for old cows and even horses, there is little demand for fish.
Fishing remains the most unrewarding of our basic industries. Our ninety-three thousand fishermen probably averaged about one thousand dollars each for their 1951 catch. Generally speaking, wages in fish-packing plants, which have twenty thousand employees, were far below wages in meat-packing plants.
ne basic reason for this situation is that, as a nalion, we won’t eat fish. Our housewives, complaining bitterly about meat prices, still buy ten pounds of meat to every pound of less-expensive fish. Fillet of sole, an epicurean delicacy, is often cheaper than crude Bologna sausage — but we usually settle for boloney.
We eat only half as much fish as the British, a third as much as the Danes, a quarter as much as the Norwegians. Germans, Dutch and French all beat us as fish eaters. Our per capita fish consumption is a shade higher than that of the United States, land of the hot dog, but there are areas of the U. S., such as the New England states, where fish is accorded the respect it deserves. In Boston you can hardly walk a block without passing a sea-food restaurant.
In Canada we suffer from a sort of gastronomic blind spot which is retarding the development of an industry of major importance, particularly in the Atlantic provinces with their faltering economy. It’s also causing us to neglect an outstanding bargain. Beef has doubled in price these last six years, but fish has stayed reasonably near 1945 levels.
Most of us are culinary snobs, content with our traditional meat and potatoes, and too lazy and apathetic to give our taste buds new adventures. We have a crazy idea that fish is beneath our dignity. You even encounter this beside salt water, where people should know better.
When D. Leo Dolan, chief of the Canadian Government Travel Bureau, toured the Maritimes recently, he hoped, as an enlightened epicure, to stuff himself with sea food. But at most of the luncheons and dinners at which he spoke the main course was chicken. In one town he smilingly chided one of his hosts about not serving fish. The man replied gravely that
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chicken had been considered more appropriate for a visitor — thereby endowing the view that fish is inferior.
In B. C. the situation is similar. Duriig last year’s royal tour Princess Elizabeth wasn’t even served a fish entree at dinner in the Hotel Vancouver. Woodward’s food department in Vancouver, Canada’s biggest, reports that its total dollar sales in fish is only one Iwentieth of that in meat and poultîy. Three years ago a contest was held co establish British Columbia’s native dish. The winner was baked salmen with oyster stuffing. But no restaurant in B. C. features it. And not long ago the Fisheries Association put on a reception for the B. C. Chamber of Commerce at which the dinner entree was roast beef tenderloin garni.
The explanation of this attitude lies in the past. Our ancestors depended largely on salt fish and salt meat. Then came refrigeration facilities which led to the establishment of packing houses. Soon fresh meat was always available and the sale of cured fish dwindled. Fish dealers tried shipping fresh fish inland, but refrigeration was still primitive. Fish is more perishable than meat and when it arrived at its destination was, at best, not good and, at worst, unfit for cats. Inlanders turned against it.
Now, refrigeration and handling methods have so improved that it’s possible to buy fish of dockside quality anywhere in Canada. But the prejudice lingers on.
There are signs, however, that these barriers to the acceptance of fish as a food of first rank are gradually being overcome, thanks to a long-range campaign by the federal Department of Fisheries and the industry, and to high meat prices. In 1950 we ate thirteen and a half pounds of fish per head of population, compared with twelve and a quarter pounds in 1947. Our 1951 consumption probably exceeded that of 1950.
But last year you could still see in coastal communities evidence of our national indifference to fish. Take herring. In Scotland they’re so esteemed that they’re described as “bonnie fish and halesome fairin’ ” in the familiar Caller Herrin’ song by Caroline, Lady Nairne. Turned into golden bloaters by the alchemy of brine and smoke they’re England’s favorite breakfast. Charles Sala, Victorian gourmet, contended that such delightful morsels should be cooked with a fiery ritual. His recipe: But two bloaters in a soup plate, pour on them enough whisky to cover, set it alight and let it burn itself out. The bloaters will then be done and done exquisitely.
But in Canada nobody sets herring to music. Maritime farmers plowed millions of them into the fields as fertilizer last spring. Consumers didn’t want them. Here was wonderful food, treated as manure.
Flump firm-fleshed mackerel, diminutive cousins of the tuna, also went begging in Canada, although they’re one of the cheapest and most delicious of fish. A lot of famous New England restaurants get their mackerel from the Maritimes, and Canadians visiting there praise it. It’s odd that they should so enjoy across the border the same caught-in-Canada fish they scorn at home.
Salt cod was another unwanted item last year. The market was so slack that the Federal Government gave financial aid to Newfoundland’s hard-
hit outport fishermen. Yet the uninitiated, who wrinkle their noses at salt cod, are missing a number of choice and extremely economical dishes. One of these is the Newfoundland specialty, boiled salt cod and brew'is—brewis being hardtack, or ship’s biscuit, softened in the liquid in which the fish has been boiled.
Don’t despise salt cod. More fresh cod is landed at Lunenburg, N.S., than anywhere in Canada, but the leading hotel features Dutch dinner, the basis of which is salt cod. And trawler fishermen, who are sea-food epicures,
often eat creamed sail cod as a treat —though they’re pulling nets of the fresh variety out of the water. The rub is that it must be freshened. At sea you do this by towing the fish behind the vessel. Ashore you have to soak and parboil it. Salt-cod dishes are well worth the trouble, but the average housewife seems disinclined to bother with it. Thus, the ultimate salvation of the Newfoundlanders lies in plants that will enable them to fillet and freeze their cod. Braetically all the gain in Canada’s fish consumption in recent years has been accounted for
by the increased demand for fresh and frozen fillets, which involve a minimum of cookery.
If Canadians acquire the fish habit they’ll not only save money but benefit their health. For fish contains most of the elements the body needs. Three hundred years ago Thomas Jordan, poet and philosopher, wrote: “Fish dinners will make a man spring like a flea.” He thus anticipated the findings of present-day nutritionists. “The sea,” one expert says, “is a receptacle into which the rivers are gradually draining the good of the land. When
we have fish on our tables it brings us the sea, with the good of the land, in palatable form.”
The Canadian has a wide variety of raw materials to draw from. Our fisheries yield more than forty kinds of fish and shellfish, ranging alphabetically from alewives to yellowtail and in size from winkles to giant tuna. Then, too, there are the delectable creatures of the fresh-water fisheries, like lake trout and goldeye.
Our sea fishermen harvested around a billion and a half pounds last year and could have harvested a lot more if they’d had a market.
Wherever you live you’ll have to buy most species frozen or canned. Don’t disdain frozen fish. Old-fashioned freezing left the fish flabby and flat, but modern freezing preserves texture and flavor.
Since each kind of fish has its own distinctive flavor the fish chef has far more scope than the meat chef. He can emphasize one flavor, as when he steams clams or bakes salmon, or he can blend several flavors, as when he combines sole, lobsters and oysters in that magic brew, bouillabaisse. Yet, in spite of this, competent professional fish chefs are rare in Canada.
j Don’t Be Heavy-Handed
There are a few good ones in Montreal and Toronto. This may be why the ! annual per capita fish consumption in both those cities is four and a half pounds more than the national average. The chef situation being what it is the way to be sure of a memorable fish dinner is to tie on an apron yourself.
Remember that fish, like eggs, can j be wrecked by overcooking. The worst blunder of Canadian fish cooks is j cooking fish too much. Remember, as well, that the flavor is delicate. There are dishes in which it may be accentuated with onion, garlic, celery, bay leaves, vinegar, wine, lemon juice, bacon, salt pork and spices, but don’t be heavy-handed or the taste of the fish will be lost.
You can’t go wrong with fillets, fresh or frozen. If you pick fillet of sole, salt it lightly, dust it with flour and fry it gently in a pan that is not too hot. Make a sauce with equal amounts of butter and lemon juice, plus finely chopped parsley. The result is a thing of beauty—honey-colored, flecked with green parsley, glistening with lemon butter and every bit as good as it looks. Eat it slowly and with great relish. Don’t serve it with strong vegetables like onions that will detract from its flavor; use tiny green peas or asparagus or a tossed salad.
Cod fillets are coarser and you can be a little rougher with them. On the Atlantic coast the approved method of cooking them is with salt pork. Dice the pork and brown it in the skillet. Cool the pan slightly, push the pork to one side and drop in the cod, having first dusted it with salt and flour. Fry it golden brown. When serving top it with the crispy pork cubes and slices of lemon, and surround it with hearty vegetables like beets and carrots.
Haddock fillets are about halfway between sole and cod, and you can ! cook them according to either recipe. They’re delicious both ways.
As this is written, you can buy succulent halibut steaks for not much more than half what you pay for a tough chunk of round steak. Yet halibut is one of the finest fish in the sea. Fry the steaks as you would fillet of sole, or, better still, grill them in the oven, basting them with butter or margarine. Serve with parsley butter and sit down to a feast fit for the gods.
Cook salmon steaks the same as
halibut, but somewhat longer. The rich firm red flesh will transport you to a gourmet’s heaven. The only thing salmon fanciers find better than salmon steaks is a good-sized piece of salmon baked or boiled. Allow ten to fifteen minutes per pound. The fish should be served with a white sauce into which hard-boiled eggs have been chopped. Capers will add a touch to the sauce, too, if you have them handy.
If you have a pound of baked or boiled salmon left over you can have kedgeree the next day. Just break it up and mix it in a double boiler with two cups of cooked rice, four minced hard-boiled eggs, four tablespoons of butter or margarine, quarter of a cup of cream, salt, pepper and paprika. Heat and serve. It’s terrific!
If you succeed in finding fresh herring, the old Scottish recipe is this; Clean and dry herring, sprinkle with salt and pepper, roll in oatmeal and fry in hot dripping until brown.
Select mackerel carefully. It’s a bright-colored fish, delightful fresh but terrible when stale. There’s a reason for that expression “deader than a mackerel.” If the color has faded it’s stale and this applies even when it’s frozen.
To get into the realm of more complicated fish cookery, sole à la normande is a gorgeous creation. Start by boiling an onion enough to tone down its flavor. Slice this very thin and lay the slices in a pan on butter. Put the sole on the onion and sprinkle it with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add the juice of a lemon and enough white wine to cover. Cook in a slow oven for thirty minutes, then remove the fish and stir into the liquid in which it has been cooked a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of flour. When this thickens add half a cup of cream and bring it to a boil. Surround the fish with fried bread snippets and pour the sauce over it. If it turns out right, it has a flavor that sings.
William Makepeace Thackeray wrote of a fish dish:
This bouillabaisse a noble dish is —
A sort of soup, or broth, or brew.
Or hotch-potch of all sorts of fishes
That Greenwich never could outdo:
Green herbs, red pepper, mussels, saffron,
Soles, onion, garlic, roach and dace;
All these you eat at Terte’s Tavern,
In that one dish of bouillabaisse.
You can make the dish that delighted 'Thackeray in your own kitchen. The recipe differs a hit from that of Terte’s Tavern, but the end product is equally inspiring. Get together three pounds of whitefish (preferably sole but another kind will do), one dozen oysters, half a cup of cooked shrimp, crab or lobster meat, one cup of canned tomatoes, two cups of boiling water, half a cup of salad oil or olive oil, a pinch of saffron (obtainable at drugstores), the juice of a lemon, one bay leaf, two mediumsized onions sliced, one carrot sliced, half a cup of canned pimento chopped, one bruised garlic clove, chopped parsley, toast.
All ready? Let’s go.
Heat the oil and sauté the fish and onion. Next, add water, tomatoes, bay leaf, carrot and garlic and simmer for twenty minutes. Add saffron, lemon, pimento and shellfish, season with salt and pepper, bring to a boil and pour into a deep dish over toast fingers. Add a little white wine if you wish. Now, tie on your bib, pull up a chair and sit down to one of the finest concoctions ever devised.
In the days of Dickens oysters sold for a shilling a hundred in England and were the food of the poor. In Pickwick Papers Sam Weller remarks:
“It’s a wery remarkable circumstance. sir, that poverty and oysters seem to go together . . . Blessed if I don’t think that wen a man’s wery poor he rushes out of his lodgings and eats oysters in regular desperation.”
In a later period the beds were depleted and oysters became a luxury indulged in by Diamond Jim Brady and other notables. They went with champagne suppers. Today, in Canada, ,conservation and scientific cultivation have begun to restore the supply and oysters cost no more than some foods that are drab and uninteresting.
For fancy occasions there are “angels on horseback.” Roll each oyster in bacon, first having flavored it with lemon. Now, borrow some of your wife’s steel knitting needles. Impale the bacon-wrapped oysters on the knitting needles, suspend them over a deep pan in such a way that they don’t touch it, bake until bacon is straw-colored, and serve on toast.
Like oysters, lobsters have become reasonably economical again. They aren’t cheap, mind you—it’s just a matter of degree. If you buy them alive, which is the best way to buy them, salt the water well and have it at a rolling boil before you pop them headfirst into the pot. Remove them as soon as they’re bright scarlet or they’ll be tough and dry. If you’re softhearted and don’t care for the idea of boiling things alive you can get lobsters already boiled at the fish market and they’ll probably be excellent. When you serve them split them lengthwise down the middle and crack the claws, and be sure that everybody has a small bowl of melted butter to dip the lobster meat in. If it’s a convivial occasion which matches the lobster’s festive red jacket and zestful flavor the beverage should be beer.
As a fish chef you can have fun if
you venture off the beaten path and concoct items like eel stew. For this, have the fish man skin two eels and cut them in two-inch lengths. Sauté chopped green onions in butter or margarine for five minutes, add water, half a cup of red wine, a tablespoon of vinegar, a pinch of nutmeg, salt and pepper. Simmer the eels in this for forty-five minutes. Thicken the gravy with flour or cornstarch and serve the stew on toast, garnished with parsley. If eels make anybody at your table shudder you can always say they’re some other fish. The flesh has a firm texture, is rich, and has a distinctive but pleasant flavor. Among Italians, eels are very highly regarded, and Scandinavians cherish them dearly if they’re smoked heavily and served on dark rye bread.
Then there is cod roe—and there’s certainly a heap of roe in a female cod which lays three million eggs. Simmer the roe in water with salt and a couple of tablespoons of white vinegar. Then cool it, slice it, and fry in deep fat until golden brown. It has a strong fishy taste, but if you’re a caviar fan you’ll like it. Shad and herring roe may also be cooked this way.
If you’d care for an imposing array of simple and foolproof recipes the Department of Fisheries at Ottawa will be glad to oblige. Lately, it has been energetically compiling cookbooks and pamphlets because it is convinced that we’ll eat more fish if we know how to cook it.
And if Canadians do eat more fish it will mean a better market for the billion and a half pounds of first-class food produced by our fisheries each year and a better livelihood for our ninety-three thousand fishermen and twenty thousand processing-plant employees. It will likewise add variety and nourishment to our national diet, if