When it comes to 'trash fish,' what's in a name?
Some say the catchy, but gross-sounding moniker can generate the buzz needed to get diners eating lesser-known breeds. Others say it's the wrong idea.
“Trash Fish.” Would you eat it?
It’s a two-word buzz-inducing phrase that covers all the ocean’s under-loved varieties: the hake and redfish and dogfish of the world that are plentiful off New England’s coasts, yet so often ignored in this region.
The many Boston-area experts who spoke with Metro agree: for a sustainable fishery future, area diners need to broaden their palates and eat more than just the staples like haddock and cod. But is “trash fish” the title these oceanic underdogs need to make it to the mainstream?
“We wanted it to be provocative,” said Alisha Fowler of the Cambridge-based Chefs Collaborative, which hosts “trash fish dinners” to promote the lesser-known breeds. “We’re not trying to say they’re like trash, or unworthy. But just the fact that they’re cast aside and treated like they’re not worthy.”
Provocative it has been. Since 2013, it’s caught the attention of the culinary community around the country. More than 50 chefs have led “trash fish dinners” of their own, she said. In April, the Collaborative plans to host a food summit in New York for an estimated 350 cooks, which she said will focus in parton the subject.
Michael Leviton, who owns Newton restaurantLumiere, for one, embraces the term.
An outspoken advocate for those underused fish and frequent fish-tasting event host, he said he always puts at least one so-called “trash fish” on his ever-changing menu, depending on the day’s catch.
“Consumers are not all of a sudden going to ask for this stuff unless they’re exposed to it somehow,” he said. “If we as chefs don’t do that, then we’re screwed.”
Leviton is in the process of selling his stake in the restaurant and said he plans to spend more time preaching the “trash fish” gospel and focusing on other issues related to sustainability. He teaches sustainability and cooking courses at BU. He’s shopping around a proposal for a “trash fish” book.
Considering the ocean’s fragile stock of fish and the government’s tightening of fishing quotas on overfished popular breeds, the threat to fishing – and its role in the regional culture and economy — is real without change, said Elizabeth Fitzsimons, outreach manager for the sustainable seafood program at the New England Aquarium. The aquarium has partnered with the Chefs Collaborative on the issue.
“New England Fisheries have been challenged,” Fitzsimons said. “If we can’t drive focus toward some of these underutilized species, there’s certainly more risk for those shore-side communities.”
But the “trash fish” moniker may be the wrong approach, given how attached diners in Boston and elsewhere are to their old favorites, fish industry folks told Metro.
“Under-utilized or under-appreciated might be a better name,” said Jim Turner, owner of Turner’s Seafood. “For centuries we ate cod and haddock and that’s what we liked, and so breaking those habits has not been easy.”
Turner is giving a talk in Boston in January on the state of the fishing industry with Dave Marciano, star of the local docu-series “Wicked Tuna.” Turner said diverse eating, and ways of convincing diners to pick unfamiliar menu choices, would be a big part of that discussion.
“I think traditionally New Englanders have been — I’m not sure I want to call it ‘spoiled’—but fixated on certain species,” he said.
“We grew up on the nice fish,” said Doug Feeney, a fisherman from Chatham who has been trying to stoke the local market for the very, very unloved dogfish for years. Dogfish, which are basically miniature sharks, are plentiful off the Cape’s coast but almost no one this side of the Atlantic eats them. “You’re trying to sell it to people and you call it ‘trash fish?’ Do you really think it’s going to take off?”
Recently though, Feeney said he has been slipping some carefully chosen dogfish cuts to a restaurant near him called The Corner Store in Orleans. Every Friday for the past few months, the Corner Store has been selling “sharkritos,” lightly fried dogfish paired with a sweet chili aioli.
It’s a catchy name, and they’ve been a big hit, he said. No one’s calling it “trash,” and Feeney wants to keep it that way.