By Jack Sparacino
Well, everyone knows what fish are. “Schtick” is a Yiddish word with several meanings, including routine or bit as in showbiz and a cunning or deceitful action or device; it can also refer to a prank or simple frivolity. Which brings me to “fish schtick,” or things said or done in the name of fishing that aren’t exactly, precisely, necessarily on the level or the full story. If I may offer some examples.
1. Where’s the data? The otherwise wonderful guy who motions with his arms to let you know how big the fish that he caught (yesterday, last week, last year) was. Notice how his arms expand as he’s making the gesture. Now as much as I like the idea of being able to make arm motions, especially when my shoulder hurts, and like hearing how other people made out on the water, I prefer an actual measurement. Twenty five inches. Three feet. Five pounds. You know, like they do in fishing tournaments.
2. Yesterday’s catch. Different wonderful guy who announces on a slow fishing day, often on a party boat, “You should have been here yesterday; we were killing ‘em.” Hey, how about that. Well, since my time machine is in the shop, I can’t travel back to yesterday with you. How about we just enjoy today.
3. Bluefish. The idea that with more oily fish like mackerel or bluefish, the best way to prepare them is by smothering them with strong flavors like onions and a lot of spices. (Or just throw them to the cat.) Now onions are fine to cook with and I love them six ways to Sunday. But bluefish, for example, tastes great off the grill or from the broiler if you simply make sure they’re extremely fresh and you’ve removed all the dark meat before cooking. A little olive oil, some fresh herbs? Sure. Bluefish is also TERRIFIC smoked. Likewise with mackerel, you can smoke it just as you would yellowfin tuna, whiting, or any number of other delicacies. It doesn’t need to be entombed in a bunch of other stuff that distracts from the rich natural flavor.
4. When life gives you lemons … Staying with fish cookery, the practice (thankfully not common in the Lowcountry as far as I can tell) of cooking fish with lemon. This only serves to ruin the fish and the lemon. What works a lot better is simply adding fresh squeezed lemon after the fish is cooked.
5. Frozen when? Contrary to what many people do, freezing fish (whether in milk, water, or just in an airtight bag) will never produce a dish nearly as exquisite as using really, really fresh fish. I’m talking fresh as in it was swimming less than six hours ago and iced immediately, if you can get it. There is just nothing in the world like it. Of course you can wait a day or two if it’s well refrigerated and absolutely necessary to wait and it’ll still be good, way better than frozen.
6. Golden rule. Person tries to tell you that you really need to stock up on gold spoons (which are not particularly cheap) to effectively target red fish, the South Carolina state fish. As it happens, red fish are excellent fighters and very tasty but they are anything but picky eaters. They can be caught fairly readily and inexpensively using plastic jigs, live shrimp, mud minnows, cut squid or mullet, crab, take your pick.
7. Bass tournaments. This is an industry unto itself with countless participants and fans. My only quibble is, do we always have to be talking about freshwater bass? The term “bass” actually covers many great fish, including the extremely popular striped bass, black sea bass (an absolute favorite among top chefs), and even our local red fish, sometimes called spot tail bass even though they aren’t really bass but rather drum.
8. Mega-gigantic fishing tackle stores. Everything you could ever, ever, possibly, in your wildest dreams and with an unlimited budget, want to consider purchasing. Truth is, you can do very well on price and value and set yourself up for some terrific Lowcountry fishing by shopping big box, hardware, and even department stores.
9. Little fishies. “Commercially caught open ocean fish such as swordfish are getting smaller and that’s a good thing because it says there’s a lot of breeding going on.” I heard those actual words from an extremely successful sword boat captain in New England. Trouble is, it’s wrong. The dominance of smaller fish is a sure sign that the larger breeders are being systematically wiped out. The data are pretty clear on this, for example the sharp declines in tuna catches. There are less tuna in the ocean now compared to only a decade or two ago, they are smaller in size and weight, and the huge tuna are almost extinct. And don’t get me started on the sharp declines in cod.
10. An acquired taste? At the risk of going for a popular food, as lots of people love ‘em, can we call fish STICKS what they are — kind of icky? Heaven knows when the poor fish were caught (probably a long while before you bought them), or what was actually done with them in the processing plant (“and here’s our shredder and sanitizing equipment…”). And why didn’t they go the way of the frozen TV dinners that came in aluminum pans years ago? (OK, OK, convenience and customer demand.)
There. That’s my “schtick.” Now, what’s today’s special?
By Jack Sparacino