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Watoga Trail Report

Painting titled Lobster, Crab and a Cucumber by William Henry Hunt 1826, at right. Public domain.

Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie, File Gumbo

Warning: All of the dishes below may contain mudbugs. Still hungry?

There are so many interesting stories about the rebranding of food items that I thought we might examine a few more once-scorned foods that were made desirable by a makeover.

However, please remember that the often too successful marketing strategy of rebranding can have severe consequences for the product and its environment.

I am fond of lobster, and many times I have set off from Boston driving to Bar Harbor, Maine, passing by very few clam shacks and lobster joints without stopping.

I often wondered if the folks living on the New England coast ever tired of lobster and opted for a Big Mac once in a while. When I asked that question of a Penobscot lobsterman some years ago, he smiled and said, “Well, an aged steak is good occasionally, and I like cod, but we do eat a lot of lobster.” 

Most of us rank lobster right up there with food items that we may or may not have experienced eating. Things like white sturgeon caviar, Kobe beef, and Perigord black truffles; many consider lobster just such a delicacy.

But that has not always been the case.

We have all heard that at one time, lobsters were served to prisoners, much to their chagrin. Until the mid-19th century, lobster was considered only fit for the poor and as a fertilizer or fish bait.

Upon entering into a working contract with their wealthy employers, household servants often had a stipulation in their contract that they would not be fed lobster more than two times per week. Such was the disdain for this crustacean.

Gourmands did not prize lobsters until they started to catch on with the hoity-toity of New England. And then, of course, it rapidly became priced out of the range of the average consumer. Likewise, prisoners and servants were not fed lobster anymore.

Once lobsters were proclaimed desirable and delicious by the upper classes, they were deemed too good for the average chap. Let’s hope that today’s hoity-toity don’t set their hungry gaze upon our West Virginia ramps and trout.

What’s a mudbug?

A student was summing up a book report on China to her fifth-grade class when she exclaimed somewhat enviously, “And in China, the people who live there get to eat Chinese food every day.”

Much the same could be said of the Cajun folks who live in the areas southwest of New Orleans. Cajuns are often associated with the bayous and swamps of coastal Louisiana and are famous for their music and food.

We should not forget that they were exiled from Canada in 1755 and were immigrants to the U.S. Like many immigrant groups, they brought to this country a rich history and culture that includes the opportunity for new food experiences for all of us.

The poet Longfellow made famous the Acadians’ (Cajun) plight in his epic poem Evangeline, in which the poem’s namesake becomes separated from her betrothed in the diaspora. Many years later, they were finally reunited on her lover’s deathbed.

They have a long tradition of eating crawfish, which didn’t catch on with the outside world until the 1980s. Dishes such as crawfish etouffee, crawfish jambalaya, and crawfish gumbo are now immensely popular.

The mudbug, aka crayfish, crawfish, and crawdad, is closely related to the lobster. They look like miniature lobsters, replete with claws that can draw blood. And when cooked, they turn the same color of red as Maine lobsters.

The greatest number of crawfish species are found in North America. Louisiana, which calls itself the “crawfish capital of the world,” accounts for 90 percent of the crawfish harvested worldwide.

Crawfish took many years to become acceptable as a prime ingredient in dishes. But the many charms of New Orleans and her Cajun and Creole people inevitably grabbed our attention and opened up our minds to new gustatory experiences.

So if you do find a mudbug in your soup, be happy, celebrate, have a Pimm’s Cup on me!

Sautéed goosefish anyone?

Consumer demand for what is perceived by the public as “new” seafood items, is often blamed for damage to wild populations of popular fish and crustaceans. And sometimes, the damage extends to their natural habitat. Such is the case with the monkfish.

Rebranding and marketing of the goosefish as “monkfish” resulted in quadrupling sales back in the mid-1980s.  The name goosefish was thought by marketers to make us think of geese.

On the whole, geese have a poor reputation regarding hygiene, so the public was introduced to the monkfish as a seafood dish par excellence instead of the unfortunately named goosefish.

The monkfish is not an attractive fish, to say the least; nothing you would consider putting in your aquarium tank. But it is tasty, very tasty.

It tastes so much like lobster that one can easily overlook the fact that it spends its entire life on the muddy seabed. Also called devilfish, the monkfish is adorned with all sorts of appendages and spines meant to attract its prey and provide camouflage from predators.

I have cooked with this fish on several occasions and can attest to its lobster-like qualities that include texture as well as taste. The recipes for monkfish run the same gamut as lobster –  Newberg, Thermidor, bisque, and even faux lobster rolls.

The problem with the rising popularity of the monkfish was not limited to the depletion of its numbers. Rather, the trawling methods used to take bottom fish tend to destroy a multitude of seabed habitats, including corals, crustaceans and other sea life.

Once again, we see where marketing and name change coupled with the recent cult of chef stardom, can draw attention to once overlooked fish and crustaceans. Once the word gets out about a new food craze, everybody has to try it.

Overfishing and overconsumption does have consequences that can endanger the very thing we prize.

An urchin of the night.

Uni is the darling of sushi chefs everywhere. But uni is not what those who fish the cold waters of the Gulf of Maine called the sea urchins that get tangled up in their nets.

Maine’s fishermen and fisherwomen demonstrated their disdain for the sea urchin by naming it “whore’s eggs.” They had no idea at the time that one day there would be a huge market for the eggs of these bottom-dwelling pin cushions.

When sushi chefs, particularly in Japan, discovered the delicate eggs of Maine’s sea urchins, a new livelihood was spawned (pardon the pun).  Divers can earn up to $6,000 per week during the winter harvesting season, gathering sea urchins from the seabed.

I can save you a trip to your local sushi bar to give uni a try. That is if you have sufficient confidence in my highly refined sense of taste. My taste buds can readily distinguish between bacon and chocolate, and while blindfolded, no less.

I have tried uni only once and can state without reservation that it tastes every bit like spoiled cottage cheese into which a dog has copiously peed.

I know what you are thinking, “How does Ken know what such a thing would taste like?”

Ken Springer

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