Out here in the Flatlands, a thousand miles from any saltwater other than sauerkraut brine, the restaurant's repertoire of seafood dishes tended to be thin. Since only frozen fish were generally available, most chefs found that their greatest challenge in preparing ocean fish was in camouflaging their mediocre taste and gummy texture.
Lobster tails had to be drowned in butter; shrimp had to be breaded and fried until they curled up on themselves like briny doughnuts whose crumbly coating at least held a gooey tartar sauce all the way to the diner's maw. We won't even address the millions of bricks of frozen cod that quivered under a blanket of starchy cream sauce, except to mention that the name of the dish -- torsk! -- was also the sound that a slab of the stuff made when it dropped into your unsuspecting stomach.What to do with a frozen fish
My very favorite preparation, at least at the Ambassador, was something we called Dover Sole Waleska. In order to create this delicacy, the cook took a whole flat fish, frozen hard as a shingle, and thawed its exterior under cold running water. The skin could then be pulled off with a mighty tug, exposing the rigid flesh from mouth to tail. A knife was inserted along either side of the unfortunate creature's spine, and enough meat was peeled back to form the lips of a four-inch pocket that Georgia O'Keefe -- and every cook -- could appreciate. The whole thing was then covered in bread crumbs and deep-fried.
After the sole's final swim, the aforementioned gash was filled with that same starchy cream sauce and augmented with tomato paste and thawed crabmeat. Onto a platter it went, with some lemon wedges, and out to the dining room. There the server struggled tableside to deconstruct this mess and convey it to the salivating guest's plate. The thought that fishermen on a roiling ocean risked their lives in order to secure the makings for a Waleska is troubling.
Things around the Twin Cities improved dramatically in 1981. That year a young Chicago native named Suzanne Weinstein moved to Minneapolis, determined to open a business of her own. Using contacts she had from a previous job, Suzanne arranged for some New Jersey fishermen to pack some of their catch in shaved ice and ship it overnight to the local airport. Her first consignment was a very large, very ugly tilefish, which she picked up and drove to a Chinese grocery that had a little extra cooler space. Before the day was over, Suzanne had sold the oddity to a local chef. It was the beginning of a multimillion-dollar business called Coastal Seafoods.
The beginning of a trend
In very short order, every nice restaurant in town was featuring Coastal's fresh fish on its menu. Groupers and bluefish, sea bass and halibut, snappers and swordfish were suddenly everywhere. Chefs like me would simply call Suzanne to see what was available that day and place their orders. She hustled and provided great service, initially as a one-person operation. The rented cooler gave way to a small warehouse; the car was followed by a refrigerated van.
She found herself competing with long-established purveyors whose be-suited salespeople were appalled when Suzanne showed up ahead of them in various restaurant offices, reeking of fish and wearing fatigue pants and a T-shirt with the message "Welcome Visitors From Other Planets."
As frozen fish became passé here in the heartland, kitchen personnel had to learn the ways of fresh-fish cookery, so different and demanding. Even butchering fresh fish is an art, as so much care is needed to avoid bruising the delicate flesh. Luckily, the structure of these creatures is fairly simple, befitting their station on the food chain. A prehistoric thing like a sturgeon, all studded with knots of bony armor, can mightily resist the efforts of the boning knife, however, even in far more skillful hands than my own. Still, I think I've dismembered nearly every common piscine species at least once.An eye-opening trip
A trip to Boston confirmed this. While there, I was shanghaied into a visit to the venerable New England Aquarium, perhaps the dullest place in a city replete with run-down, dull attractions. The aquarium was one of the first built with the aim of making the visitor fear carp. Instead of majestically gazing down upon the lower forms, the visitor walked into an area where he was literally surrounded by tanks of cavorting sea creatures, all close by and at eye level.
The effect was stunning because the viewer immediately felt like a sponge or a shrimp besieged by teeming shoals of oceanic denizens. What's worse, upon stepping into the midst of the swimming mass, I realized that a great many of their close relatives had been mutilated by my knives.
Scads of scrod and every other finny thing cruised by, their frowning mouths and bulging, unblinking eyes giving the impression of their silently and eerily forming the syllables "j'accuse!"
Only a pane of aquarium glass separated me from their cold-blooded revenge. The hair stood up on my neck, and I retreated quickly. That night I had dinner at the Union Oyster House, secure in knowing that none of the mollusks there would be giving me the evil eye.
"Fried: Surviving Two Centuries in Restaurants," by Steve Lerach (Borealis Books, 189 pages, $22.95).