Volume 13, Issue 14 ~ April 7 - 13, 2005
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Crabcakes from China, Anyone?
What we're eating, nobody knows

Lied like the devil to clean up scandal,
For the bribe of advertising.
-Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology: "Rosie Roberts"

It's pretty much a scandal for a Marylander to dine on an alien crab - whether steamed, in a crabcake, soup or whatever. But we all know about the bribes within advertising. So how do we really know if the white flesh on our platter came from a crustacean in India, South America, Mexico or Texas?

Truth is, in the past we haven't been able to determine the origin of the crabmeat set before us, especially if its shell is long gone. At least until we taste it, though in some dishes some at the table can't even distinguish the difference then.

Heretofore it has been pretty much a matter of trust in the purveyor behind the counter. But do you think for a moment a merchant is going to admit that a product came from Asia if you've got a $20 bill in your hand for a container of domestic crustacean?

If you know the answer it's not a question.

Have you noticed of late (or is it just me?) that consumers are increasingly getting the short end of the stick? In this nation of ours, all the emphasis is on profit, profit and profit, whether it be via dividends to stockholders or in the pockets of the folks behind the seafood counters.

Meanwhile, everything tangible these days seems to come from China, prompting one to wonder whether Maryland-style crabcakes will be next. Perish the thought ... but one never knows.

A Short Step Up
We are about to get a wee bit of a break thanks to the Farm Bill of 2002, a piece of federal legislation that methinks doesn't satisfy nearly all our concerns about the origin of seafood. But the way things have been going I guess we'll have to settle for what little we can get.

The Farm Bill, as I understand it, insists that many who market unprocessed seafood will be required to list the country of origin of crabs, shrimp, fish and other food from the water whether it is fresh or frozen. Sounds good, and I'll concede it's a step in the right direction.

But read the fine print.

If that item we're looking at happens to be a crabcake, stuffed shrimp, lobster thermador or perhaps fish sticks, the market need not advertise the country of origin. Crabcakes from China anyone?

To this writer - who can become quite picky when it comes to buying seafood in the off months when it's virtually impossible to go out and catch the makings of a seafood dish - the Farm Bill of 2002 is no giant step. It's more along what my 3-year-old granddaughter Grumpy would take on her short gams.

I've been around long enough to realize that in some nations on this globe they don't have or effectively enforce sanitary and quality standards as well as we do.

Thus I like to know where my seafood comes from, whether it's for home consumption or in a restaurant. The finer eateries usually know; they're better and busier because they make it a point to know. They not only want to please their diners, but also to keep up with quality control. Others are more concerned with the singing of the cash register.

Wild Fish Beats Farm Fish
I'm wondering if the farm bill will do anything to let me know if the salmon filet I'm thinking of ordering from a roadside restaurant is fresh from the ocean, or is it a product of inland aquaculture. The legislation probably won't, and the same for the waitress. Doubt that? Just ask the next time you're dining out. You'll probably get a blank stare.

But there is a difference, a big difference. With few exceptions, a farm-reared chunk of salmon tastes more like a piece of cardboard. It lacks the flavor of a truly wild salmon, and the fresh pinkish color is usually lacking. I'm not one to gripe and send the platter back to the kitchen - though once friend John Logis and I did send back an inexpensive bottle of wine (after we'd already had a bit too much) at a Cambridge restaurant and not because it didn't smell or taste right. We just wanted to see what would happen (I was served another bottle with no argument).

So, if that filet of salmon that I decided to take a chance on turns out to be more suitable for the makings of a bland croquette, I'm going to have to fill up on the soup and veggies - and I'm out 10 to 15 bucks. As Phineas Taylor Barnum said, There's a sucker born every minute.

State of Our Fish
Now, let's get down to a bit of nitty gritty; something of real interest to more than a few Marylanders. Forget for a moment about countries of origin; what about states? As consumers are we not entitled to know, for instance, from what state our crabs come? Our oysters? Rockfish, sea trout, clams, you name it.

Why should we have to take the word of the merchant behind the counter who, let's face it, wants to sell this perishable product as quickly and as profitably as possible? Certainly it's possible to come up with a tracking system that would assure us we're getting the bounty of the Chesapeake, which would also satisfy our desire to help keep Maryland's seafood business afloat.

That would be aside from federal dictates so perhaps it's something our legislators might consider. And isn't it about time they expend a bit of time and effort on behalf of consumers? Watermen are of the independent and curious type, but wouldn't it be in their interest to climb aboard this bandwagon?

We're Eating Whoknowswhat
The only thing we know for sure when we go shopping for food these days - whether it be seafood, chops, hot dogs, canned goods or cereal - is the price keeps going up. We can also count on more curious words like "maltodextrin” and "gum Arabic” to be listed as ingredients. We not only don't always know from where our food comes from, we don't really know what goes into our bellies.

Some years back when I wrote a food column for The Evening Sun, I decided to check out trout sandwiches advertised in Baltimore carryouts. Some of the offerings were white and firm; others more dark and soft. Some were long slim filets from long slim fish (which trout are); others were wide from more hefty fish (which trout aren't). Clearly, here were several different species of fish all advertised as trout.

Buy chicken of the sea filets, or perhaps sea squab, and you're getting the common blowfish, which is mighty tasty. But something advertised by its real name blowfish would be hard to market, so some hustlers somewhere just embellished the name. It goes on all the time, especially in seafood.

Give us a break; tell us in understandable words more about what we're considering to purchase; if it's seafood processed or not, inform us where it came from. It would be nice if the only question left in buying a filet of shad were freshness, which you can tell by a sniff. Enough said.

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