A modern seafood master chef and historian explores the fish that made America
Highly reminiscent of those lushly illustrated and information filled 19th century natural history encyclopedias, this opus takes the reader deep into our country’s past and brings us up to the present on everything from Abalone to Wreckfish, cataloging 500 species in between. Along with these rich offerings, this James Beard Award-winning chef serves up historical recipes, lore, old-timey nomenclature, fishing methods and techniques with forays into aquaculture, preservation methods, and priceless images of period ads from seafood’s Golden Age. In the following pages you’ll find examples of all of these, many drawn from Maine’s well-deserved place in America’s watery pantheon.—Seaver on Cold Water Fish Vs. Warm Water Fish
The influence of water temperature on seafood flavor is a particularly divisive debate. As taste is a completely subjective exercise, adding a reginal component to the argument ups the ante by pitting hometown pride against anyone who would care to disagree. In short, I think that we prefer (and think superior) the products with which we grew up or with which we are most familiar. But there is a real difference, scientifically and objectively, in the flavor construct of fish from different waters. Warm waters are often crystal-clear. Phytoplankton, the basis of much of the marine food chain, requires nutrients and sunlight. While warmer climates certainly get enough sunlight, the water is often nutrient poor—it is a lack of phytoplankton that makes the waters clear. The life in warm waters is concentrated around coral reefs and the algae that live on them. There’s far more intermixing of cold, oxygen- and nutrient-dense water with sun-warmed surface layers in the northern seas, which leads to explosions of life that give the sea its enigmatic color. Simply because of the diversity of available food, the flavor profiles of cold-water species are often more complex, but not necessarily better.
Warm water denizens tend to breed more prolifically, eat more food, have quicker digestion, show accelerated growth, and lead shorter lives. There is greater diversity of life in warmer waters as opposed to the smaller number of species in the colder northern waters. Even though there isn’t significant multiformity, the sheer volume of fish of those few northern species is usually greater than the total volume in southern waters.
Regardless of provenance, when properly handled, delicious fish can be found. Truly, all of it is good. And on the whole seafood is made more interesting by the diversity of flavors and textures to be discovered in each region.
Seaver on Clams
There are different schools of thought about when clams are at their best, but now that a significant amount is farmed, they have become consistent in quality year-round. In some older New England culinary texts, clams are celebrated as the oyster lover’s salve in summer months—those without the letter r—when oysters were once rightly considered unfit to eat. To further this still-honored idea of seasonality, Florence Fabricant of the New York Times writes that “oysters call for black tie, but with clams, jeans or shorts are fine.” In short, clams epitomize casual, summer fare.
The Quahog and Butter Clam are considered the apogee for serving on the half shell, especially when smaller in size. When eaten raw, these have a viscous liquor that carries with it, as author A.J. McClane wrote, a “salt fragrant glory” and cucumber scent. Their texture is somewhat crunchy, and their distinctly mild flavor is consistent from beginning to end.
Little Neck is a market term in the New York region that refers to all quahogs, as Little Neck Bay on Long Island was once the center of the Quahog industry. This is confusing, as “little neck” is also one of the size designations under which Quahogs are sold. Little neck as a size means 6 to 10 per pound. The next size up is the Cherrystone at 4 to 6 per pound. Chowders are the largest, with 3 or less per pound.
Seaver on Dressed Smelt
From a culinary use, smelt and all its relations are most often sold in a dish called whitebait. In America, whitebait refers to a dish comprised of any number of different small silver fish species, all roughly the same size, that have been eviscerated, tossed in flour or cornmeal, and deep-fried. They are traditionally served with tartar sauce. If you have particularly small fish, I recommend leaving the head on but scraping out the belly cavity, resulting in a dish known as “fries with eyes.” James Beard offers a very curious recipe for whitebait pancakes, describing a batter just thick enough to bind together a pound of fish with grated garlic and Parmesan.
I like to celebrate the way the remarkable smelt endure freezing temperatures as they swim toward our barren winter world. And so I often play this out to its extreme. I thread the smelt onto balsam fir skewers at a 45- degree angle so that they create an arrow-shaped chevron pattern. I then use the snowblower to find my grill, fire it up, pour glasses of hot brandy-spiked mulled cider, and toast my hands as I sear the succulent and aromatic fish. Winter doesn’t usually offer much in the way of scents, so the billowing puffs of orchard wood smoke carrying the sweet cucumber and violet perfume of the fish, now basting in their own sizzling fat, are a welcome relief from the particular gravity of subzero air.
Barton Seaver has followed a successful culinary career in Washington, DC with a deep dive into sustainable seafood and cookery as an author, historian, and Explorer for the National Geographic Society.