Slow Food came to town this weekend, and I stopped by Friday night to see the fish booth in the "Taste Pavilion". The big hall down at Fort Mason was filled with exquisitely designed little houses and displays: chocolate beans hid inside a cabin made of old pallets, jams and jellies were arrayed beneath thousands of jar lids hung from the ceiling in waves. I dropped off materials for the Crab Boat booth and watched Tom Worthington arrange whole fish in a bed of ice. Monterey Fish Market was one of the earliest local suppliers to take an interest in sustainability, picking certain fish and fishing gears over others and selling them to restaurants like Hayes Street Grill and Chez Panisse.
Fish are impressive animals, shiny and brightly colored, with large eyes. Coffee, chocolate, olive oil, salami -- we may not see the process that transforms the raw original into the edible, but we can easily imagine an olive or a pig, we can see photos of cocoa pods. Few people see fish whole anymore and filets give no sense of the original fish. Discovering the diversity of fish takes a simple label -- fish -- and explodes its meaning into a technicolor world of life.
I stood to the side with a motley crew of volunteers, fishermen, and other ocean sorts. We could all name the easy fish, even though few of them were local. California halibut, albacore tuna, Alaskan coho and chinook salmon still silver from the ocean, sablefish from Washington, striped bass, ling cod, and a group of deeperwater Pacific rockfish that could be sharpchinned or squarespot. One of the local salts had never seen a monkfish whole before, since it's a denizen of the Atlantic, and the true cod (Gadus morhua) stumped a few folks before we pulled its distinctive barbels out of the ice. We all work on fish, but naming the bounty of the sea was tricky, even for us. I have no doubt Tom could have rattled them off, since he signed the sales bill, but that's just one link in the chain from sea to plate.
Later that weekend, my friend Amy and I talked about 'terroir' and pondered a similar word for fish. After all, salmon from different rivers can taste distinctively different. Aquoir? Meroir? I wonder if we weren't ahead of ourselves, if we have to start with naming the fish before we market the place. Then again, knowing the names of fish may only be fun sport for us fish geeks, while places can captivate anyone. How many wine drinkers make it to Bordeaux, or even Napa? Perhaps we have to move away from splitting and wallet cards to certifying places and portfolios of fisheries. Perhaps that's the next tool for sustainable fisheries, not identification but location.
Margot Neebe took this nice photo of the rockfish peering out of the fish display