Myths and Misconceptions About Fish Flesh

Myths and Misconceptions About Fish Flesh

Largemouth bass aren’t good to eat. Pale-flesh salmon and trout are inferior. Catfish from muddy waters taste like mud. Bony fish are useless. Just as with terrestrial critters, myths and misconceptions regarding fish flesh abound. Though often outright wrong, sometimes they contain kernels of truth.

White king salmon, also known as ivory Chinook, demonstrate the fluctuating cultural beliefs about fish flesh. Unlike most Chinook, with their famous cherry-red meat, about one in 20 kings possesses a musculature with a color closer to walleye or whitefish. Generations of anglers believed this difference derived from an alternate diet—perhaps from eating squid rather than shrimp—and they treated it as inferior fare only fit for the smoker.

A 1986 paper published in the Canadian Journal of Genetics and Cytology demonstrated that white flesh in Chinook actually represents a genetic mutation that prevents the uptake of color pigments from crustaceans into muscle tissue. In other words, diet has nothing to do with their pale meat.

For decades, white king sold for significantly less than red. Around the year 2000, however, the price went through the roof as Le Bernardin, Picholine, Alain Ducasse and other high-end New York restaurants decided to treat white king as a delicacy.

A review by the New York Times in September 2000 remarked on the surprise popularity of white king and extolled its gourmet virtues.

“It would be unfair, however, to say that novelty was the only reason for its success,” food critic Amanda Hesser wrote. “This is much more than salmon without pigment. It is different from the red in taste, in texture and in many other subtle qualities. It has a softer flesh and is buttery and silky, less meaty and somehow less salmony. It tastes at once sweet, like a freshwater fish, and deeply of the sea. It is clearly salmon, but with flavors reminiscent of perch and Chilean sea bass. Compared with farmed salmon and even red king salmon, which tend to be oily and fishy tasting, white king salmon’s delicacy is incomparable.”

The rise of the ivory Chinook reflects that of the lobster a century earlier, when the clawed crustaceans quickly transitioned from the menus at prison cafeterias to expensive delicatessens, as described in David Foster Wallace’s famous essay, “Consider the Lobster.” Many seafoods have similarly fallen in and out of favor, but many more retain undeserved antipathy from anglers and fish eaters.

Carp were introduced to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century by European immigrants missing their favorite sport and food fish. The barbeled bottom feeders held enormous popularity for decades before a steep decline, when people started associating them with polluted waterways and plummeting native fish stocks.

Today, carp retain that negative reputation as food in America, even among the most adventurous wild foods connoisseurs.

“A lot of people say that carp aren’t that good, but it’s totally true,” Steve Rinella said. “They’re never going to be great, but certainly aren’t inedible.”

MeatEater contributor Ryan Sparks has a different take: “I gave my carp the royal treatment. I scaled, filleted, and removed the mud vein, then I threw the fillets on the grill with some salt and pepper and a pat of butter. When they were cooked, my wife and I hesitantly tucked in. After the first bite we both agreed it was delicious.”

Parker Hall works as a wildlife biologist for the USDA in Florida. Originally from Georgia, he has worked and eaten fish all over the country, with a special emphasis on catfish. He just shakes his head when people suggest muddy water catfish taste bad and other such foolishness.

“It’s catfish fat that has a strong flavor. There’s a lot of myths, and a lot of people who don’t know how to properly clean them,” Hall said. “Mud is not at all indicative of quality of water. It’s the age of fish and what they’re consuming. If you’re a flathead eating bluegills all day you’re going to taste like bluegill. A blue cat with a belly full of mussels would taste different than if it’d been eating shad.”

Hall says that flatheads are widely considered the best-tasting catfish because they do not scavenge, unlike their cousins. Blue and channel cats will eat whatever they can get, resulting in greater flavor variance. He also says that catfish in contained environments can sometimes pick up the flavor of algal blooms, turning off would-be fish eaters. The same fish will taste different a month later, though.

A reputation for bad taste extends beyond bottom feeders. The two most popular gamefish in the country, rainbow trout and largemouth bass, have steadily fallen out of favor as table fare—perhaps in correlation with the rise in the catch-and-release ethic among their pursuers. Many die-hard trout and bass anglers will often say, without the slightest hint of irony, that they dislike the taste of their preferred quarry.

“Up north, largemouth bass are looked down upon for eating. I grew up eating them in Georgia and I think they’re delicious,” Hall said. “I love eating smallmouth bass, too. They’re both delicious. I think the catch-and-release bass guys started a rumor that they’re not good to eat.”

Conversely, it seems that bony species such as pike and whitefish have grown in popularity in recent years as anglers have slowly learned how to properly treat such flesh. Inconvenient bones can be avoided through alternative filleting techniques, removed with pliers, dissolved through pickling, or rendered inconsequential through smoking and flaking off the meat. Myriad fish species become quite edible with the addition of one or two easy steps while processing.

There are a few other factors affecting fish quality that should be considered before passing judgement. The first is water temperature. A trout that tastes like sockeye salmon in January may be barely-edible mush come July. While this may be most notable in members of the salmonid family, plenty of other types of fish taste worse and have softer meat as their environment warms.

Bear in mind species’ spawning cycle. Most fishes eat enthusiastically before they begin reproduction but will often fast as they travel to breeding grounds, compete for mates, dig nests and defend offspring.

“They burn through fat and protein and replace it with water in their cells,” USFWS fisheries biologist Danny Rinella explained in reference to upstream migrating salmon. The result is softer, less flavorful flesh, he says.

Proper meat handling makes a big difference too, just like with terrestrial critters. A fish that is promptly bled, gutted and chilled will eat better than one that marinated in its own intestinal juices for a few hours in the bottom of the boat. Once a dead fish enters rigor mortis, any attempt to bend or straighten its body will break cells and impact the meat. Freezing has a somewhat similar effect, bursting muscle cells as they expand and contract.

Fresh fish always tastes best. If you’d like to learn more, The MeatEater Cookbook is an excellent visual and informational resource for proper fish handling and butchery.

Folklore and conventional wisdom are indelible pieces of the American angling experience. Old timers’ theories on run timing, weather impacts and lure or fly selection are always worth heeding, but many a myth about fish palatability has persisted for far too long. So next time someone says you can’t eat a fish, go catch one, kill it quickly, handle it properly, cook it respectfully and decide for your damn self.

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