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Here’s a Christmas tradition I could really get into …
A couple of weeks ago, Elspeth Hay, who blogs about eating local (a phrase I have to admit to hating for grammatical reasons – locally, localLY!) on Cape Cod, started asking around about the Feast of Seven Fishes. She wanted to write about it. Did anybody local celebrate it?
The name piqued my interest, sparked my curiosity: which fish? cooked how? So I kept my eyes peeled for what Elspeth posted today: a first-hand account of the old Italian tradition. She also produced an audio version:
What Frank Tenaglia of West Dennis describes isn’t fancy, but sounds delicious (FYI, baccala is salted, dried cod):
“More than seventy five years ago, my mother used to make this meal and I loved it. She would have fried smelts, fried anchovies, baccala, stuffed squid, calamari, oysters, scallops, or crab.”
Frank told Elspeth that his mother battered and deep-fried almost everything in olive oil.
His favorite were smelts—small, oily, migratory fish—that she cooked whole, gutted but with the scales and skin on and the skeleton still in. He also loved anchovies and baccala (dried, salted codfish), and his mother’s specialty, stuffed squid.
Then Elspeth offered her ideas for a feast of seven fishes:
- Stuffed Oysters
- Lobster Fra Diavolo
- Stuffed Clams
- Calamari with Stewed Tomatoes
- Salt Cod Stew
- Stuffed Squid
- Seared Sea Scallops
At this point, I’m in – hook, line, and sinker, so to speak. But then a nagging little voice in the back of my head starts asking: could you get all those things locally and sustainably caught?
Since Elspeth is a die-hard locavore and her husband runs Mac’s Seafood – a fish market completely dedicated to local, sustainable seafood – I had a hunch the answer would be ‘yes.’ Indeed, several items on Frank’s and Elspeth’s lists are no-brainers:
- Cape Cod oysters? Check. They’re almost exclusively farmed, and it’s a rapidly expanding industry that has built off its dual environmental and economic benefits. Clams don’t have quite the same booming aquaculture scene going (although they are farmed), but are also a great option.
- Sea Scallops? Check. The scallop fishery is one of the three most lucrative fisheries in Massachusetts, accounting for 77% of New Bedford’s revenue last year. While there are still some lingering concerns about encounters with sea turtles, the industry has been taking steps to modify trawls to protect turtles. And by working with local scientists, scallopers arrived at a system of rotating through fishing areas (closing areas with lots of baby scallops until they’re market-size, then dragging the you-know-what out of it for a year) that increases harvests while decreasing carbon dioxide emissions and fuel costs.
- Lobster? Check. While I write a lot about the troubles facing lobster populations south of Cape Cod, lobsters north of the Cape are booming (maybe doing too well?). And you don’t have to go all the way to Maine … Cape Cod Bay will do just fine. There’s also the lobster’s smaller cousin, Maine shrimp, to consider. The winter fishery has had to close early the past two years because fishermen hit their catch limits before the official April 15th close date, but that’s not necessarily an indicator of anything untoward. And Seafood Watch gives the thumbs up, with a yellow/good rating.
But here’s where it gets trickier.
- Gulf of Maine cod was on everybody’s ‘green’ lists until late last week, when federal fishery officials backed the latest stock assessment, which reverses the optimistic 2008 assessment and finds that cod may have been overfished by a factor of five for the past few years. They’re actually talking about the possibility of closing the cod fishery. Yikes! There’s also some debate about haddock populations (in that case, some fishermen actually say the scientists may have overestimated the stock), but for the time being that’s a good alternative. The catch (man, the puns are flowing today) is that it’s darn near impossible to fish for haddock without catching cod.
- Then there are those little guys – the smelts and anchovies Frank Tenaglia made sound so tantalizing. While some scientists say we may have nothing but small fish left by 2050, environmental groups like Oceana and Pew Environment Group warn that many forage fish are being overfished – putting the entire food chain built on them at risk. Then there’s the fact that you might not be able to find herring, or anchovies, or menhaden even if you wanted to … at least not locally caught. Most of the small fish caught in New England’s waters end up as fish meal, leaving consumers and restaurants with fish caught oversees.
- And finally, the squid. The first issue is the time of year. Squid flock to Nantucket Sound each spring, and there’s a brief flurry of activity. But commercial trawling for squid is prohibited in Massachusetts from June until April. I also suspect – although I have no data to back me up – that much of the squid caught here winds up elsewhere. Of course, that’s true with just about everything; herring may be the extreme case, but finding local seafood always requires a knowledgeable retailer (and consumer, for that matter). And while those piles of squid in your local market may well be imported, Seafood Watch gives all squid their yellow, or “good,” rating.
All in all, not bad. And if you hit a really good local seafood market, I’m sure the options would expand even further. I’ve been told by Chatham fishermen that they catch a huge variety of fish that go largely unappreciated by local consumers. So feast away, and let me know what you find!