Areas of Unrest
17 June 2001 - Something Fishy
QOTD: "A nice conservative is someone who advocates upholstered electric chairs." - Mark Russell
Reading: Tim Severin, The Sindbad Voyage
Listening to: the original cast recording of Closer Than Ever
I have tons of things to write about, but I've been short of time and I don't really want to do another grab bag entry. So I will stick to one subject and try to persuade myself that a whole week in town will give me time to write about some of the other stuff.
For now, consider the tuna.
When I was a kid, I could have been persuaded that tuna grew in cans, not in the ocean. Mom stocked up when it was on sale and we had tunafish salad sandwiches every now and then. Mixed with chopped celery, lots of onion and just enough mayonnaise to hold the mixture together, this was about the least fish-like fish one could eat. Sometimes dietary consciousness struck and there was just flaked tuna and onion. I can't explain why celery disappeared when the mayo did, but that's how it was.
And then there was the summer phenomenon called "dairy for dinner." That meant a bowl of borscht with sour cream and potatoes, followed by either tuna and onions or tuna croquettes, depending on how much Dad was following his latest diet and/or how ambitious Mom was. We ate this meal about once a week in the summer. It might have been even more frequent after the time that Mom bought 12 cases of borscht in the local public TV auction. She called up on a whim to bid $12. Somebody else had already been insane enough to do likewise, so she said, "okay, $13." For the next three hours we had to hear her name and leading bid announced every time they mentioned the borscht. While I'm on this digression, there was a particular way that the borscht was served. A bottle has four servings and I imagine that normal people just shake the bottle up and pour it into bowls. But we had a complication - namely, Dad liked borscht but didn't like whole pieces of beets. I wasn't crazy about the whole pieces of beets either. So Dad's bowl was poured first, then mine, then Elliot's and, finally, Mom's, leaving her to end up with a much thicker soup than the rest of us had. A large spoonful of sour cream was put into each bowl and you sort of mashed it into the borscht until the color had changed from a dark red to a blotchy pink. Then, you added pieces of hot boiled potato, which warmed the mixture and absorbed the soup and sour cream. I still eat borscht this way, only I eat it maybe every two years.
After that, came the tuna croquettes. I'm not really sure of the recipe, but my best guess is that the cans of tuna were just mixed with chopped onions, celery, maybe green peppers, beaten egg and bread crumbs (or, more likely, matzoh meal) to thicken. They were fried in oil and drained on paper towels before serving. It's probably been 20 years since I've eaten my mother's tuna croquettes, but the fish cakes at Dot's on Saint Helena were similar, though spicier.
Nowadays, I still eat tunafish salad sandwiches for lunch fairly often. (I should probably note that the usage "tunafish" vs. just "tuna" seems to be a New York-ism. The real oddity is British usage, which uses "tuna mayonnaise" for what we would call "tuna salad" or "tunafish salad". The British also put canned corn in it, which is just way weird.) I'll admit that I sometimes make tuna casserole of a boring but very American sort. That's a recipe I picked up in college and if you're being very fancy you call it "tuna tetrazzini." You cook pasta (shells or elbow macaroni or rotelli) and mix it with canned tuna, canned peas and carrots (or just peas), canned concentrated cream of mushroom soup, and grated cheese (if you call it "tetrazzini" you are obliged to use mozzarella, but otherwise you can use any other uninteresting cheese). In my fancy cooking days, I used to make a real bechamel sauce and use sauteed mushrooms and fresh vegetables and good cheese, but that's sort of missing the point.
I mention all of this partly because I found myself thinking about it while stocking up on cans of tunafish at the supermarket today. (On sale, for just 60 cents a can!) But the bigger reason is that it struck me how much my perception of tuna has changed since those days. Yes, I still eat tunafish salad sandwiches and tuna casserole, but I'm just as likely to pick up tuna rolls at the takeout sushi counter. (Or tuna sashimi, if I'm feeling wealthy.)
The turning point was probably the great albacore purchase of 1982. I was sharing a three bedroom apartment in Berkeley with two other women, Anne and Debbie. Debbie's sister, who lived somewhere in Marin County, had bought half an albacore and asked us if we wanted some. We ended up with some ridiculous quantity of fresh tuna, most of which we froze. For weeks, we grilled albacore steaks (usually marinated in a mixture of orange juice and soy sauce) on a hibachi on our balcony. Over the course of that summer, we probably ate thirty pounds of tuna each. There had been other food obsessions in that apartment - a previous roommate had once been given something like 200 oranges, for example. And Debbie collected mustard. She moved in shortly after we got the oranges and filled an entire shelf of the fridge with little jars of mustard. Anne got a job at a coffee place and brought home coffee and fudge on a regular basis. (To this day, I hold her responsible for the coffee snobbery that brings me to buy expensive Indonesian coffees, instead of the cheap supermarket blends.) My 20 or so little tins of tea didn't seem at all eccentric in that household. But nothing was as pervasive as the albacore.
After eating popcorn every night for several months as an undergraduate, I can barely stand the smell of the stuff now, so it's surprising that I still like tuna. Tuesday night found me in Boulder, at Zolo, eating seared ahi. Crisp on the outside, barely warmed on the inside, it was tender and tasty, with cilantro pesto and a citrus/soy/wasabi sauce. Along with tasty sweet potatoes and stir-fried veggies (mostly bok choy, but there seemed to be some jicama in the mix too), it was a splendid meal. The tequila-lime sorbet on the menu sounded tempting for dessert, but, alas, they were out of it, so I settled for just a cup of decaf.
And Wednesday night, I followed a fruitful book browse (two of Tim Severin's out-of-print books!) with dinner at Redfish. They've changed their menu some, but they still have bronzed ahi. Again, it's just seared, essentially raw inside. They serve it with a creole mustard sauce, rather bland white rice (I preferred the garlic mashed potatoes it used to come with) and green beans. A good meal doesn't quite make up for a rained-out baseball game (I'd hoped to go to Coors Field with some colleagues, but it was very wet and disgustingly cold), but it does help make a business trip more tolerable.
I once saw a Videolog episode about tuna processing. (I should explain that Videolog is a local PBS thing. Huell Howser makes miniature documentaries about everything from an elementary school accordion band to, well, tuna processing. He is considered a local hero and could probably get elected mayor of Los Angeles without a challenge.) There are several types of fish that are marketed as tuna, from the sushi-grade ahi that I feasted on in Boulder to the humble bluefin. Some are eaten raw or seared, some marinated and cooked on the grill, some canned and eaten as part of "dairy for dinner." Fishing is hard work and so is canning. Dolphin safe nets or trawling lines don't take the danger out of weeks on the high seas.
Consider the tuna and treat it with respect.
Copyright 2001 Miriam H. Nadel
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