I don’t attend many trade shows, maybe one or two every few years. This last one in mid-March was a seafood show at the Convention Center in Boston. Big seafood. International as well as domestic. I walked the aisles aimlessly, no map, no plan, passing vendor booths from all over the world, each one of them proudly displaying their favorite things: shrimp, salmon, halibut, more shrimp, more salmon, oysters and clams, lobster, processing and packaging equipment, scales, traceability tags, croaker, mackerel, and mahi, HACCP systems, freezer systems, vacuum sealers, gloves, aprons, knives, reefer trucks, pallet jacks, flounder, cod, and capelin. . .
Row after row, aisle after aisle. We moved like cattle, a herd. I could picture the ticking of all those Fitbits and activity monitors, counting steps, recording progress. As I went from one booth to another, I could sense in the mass of air around me all the possibility and potential, all the healthy competition of product–who has what from where, who was singing the loudest about quality, traceability. Trade shows–all that talent under one roof–seem to breed a touch of ego: who’s the best seafood chef, the best smoked salmon supplier, the best freezer maker. It can feel like a muscle flex, a stage. But maybe that’s the fun of the spectacle, to watch the world– Norway, Tokyo, New Bedford, Hong Kong, Chile, Dutch Harbor, Iceland, New Zealand, Point Judith–watch them show off their goods.
After a couple of hours I headed for South Station to catch a train for home. I passed the Children’s Museum and crossed over a small canal, an offshoot of Boston Harbor. Often with trade shows, I leave a bit bewildered: should I have been more aggressive with making connections at the show? That’s the point of a trade show, right? I made zero, literally none. Pathetic, I thought as I boarded my train. Is this an introvert thing? The shying away from conversations and knowing, in our core, that without the conversation nothing will happen, and we, the introverted, actually can stand there and watch in real-time the almost-conversation evaporate into midair. Once on the train and in my seat, resting legs, relaxation, all is good, all is well, I stared out the window. I saw brick and cement buildings, inbound train tracks, the sky. I’ve always felt an odd sadness on trains. Same with ferries and airport terminals. Something about travel and strangers and all that life happening around me, unknown life, fictions.
I know that these trade shows, for many people, foster excitement, everyone is flying high, shaking hands. People see their future before them, a landscape of promise. The day after a trade show anything is possible, phones bulging with new contacts, heads swollen with ideas, advancement, career, progress.
And then me, southbound out of Boston, heading for the intersection of 95 and 128– right then, the Boston Seafood Show gave me what I wanted: appreciation for what I have and know. It wasn’t a flash of lightning, nothing miraculous, just an awareness. My fish world. My scene. In a way, my ego, my pride. I laundry-listed some of the big players at the show. Shrimp, salmon, tuna, lobster, tilapia, Alaskan pollock, cod. Then I laid my roster down, the ones I eat and know: striper, fluke, black sea bass, whiting, scup, squid, blackfish, and butterfish. Not bad I thought, even though their representation at the show was low, hardly perceptible. And so I went from this global slant, huge and complicated, the measurements of units sold, containers shipped, with me kind of bummed out by my lack of involvement, went from that to a hyper-local slant, to my little sliver of a world, the Rhode Island coastal ocean, from Narragansett Bay out to Block Island.
There are so many who live and fish the local scene and we don’t even know how lucky we are. Or we forget. The show reminded me of that. To fish the seasons, to have a connection to the ocean, to know for example when to eat a fish, the optimum time for texture, fat, and taste. It’s hard to know this unless you live it and think about it. The people in the business of selling seafood have it down to numbers. Profit, risk, revenue, loss. I’m more interested in what kind of fish are running in Rhode Island Sound now. Or next week. What can I expect to catch myself, with a rod or a spear; or what can I expect to get off the Point Judith fishing fleet. What I’m interested in is my relationship to wild fish. This isn’t simple. Food choices are complex and the more we think about the choices the more complex it gets. I know my way doesn’t feed the planet. It’s more a mind set. I also know that my hyper-focused way of looking at the ocean is a privilege. Most people don’t have the choice about their seafoods or about their foods in general. Chicken is cheap and dependable. Same with pork. Both of them are grown for consumption, ready made. Same in seafood with the dominance of many farmed species. Who really cares about whiting and scup when they can buy farmed salmon or if they want a wild fish they can buy high quality haddock from Iceland for cheap.
Some of these things I’ll be writing about on this site, the Dented Bucket. What I’ve learned about cooking fish and caring for it. How to freeze it, how to ice it. Plus all the mistakes, the good and bad. The whole idea behind the name the Dented Bucket was this idea of imperfection. That the bucket isn’t whole, it’s got some flaws. That to me is progress, it’s human. Every food choice we make comes at a cost, an ecological cost. Even a bag of potato chips. I’m no purist, shunning anything that comes from somewhere outside my zip code. I don’t trace everything I eat. But when it comes to fish I am way more awake to my choices. And I want this awareness, this celebration of a food and a place, to dig itself into my life. Some of this could be my reaction to trying to slow down, a way to combat our hyper-active world of clicks and views. There is so much whitenoise. So much is done completely unconsciously–of which, I admit, I’m a master at, but this is why, I think, I’d make a good guide–the only way from here is up.
I want to write about my experiences of cooking the same fish the same way until I nail it and then shift to another fish. And then another. Then another. I will never be a great cook, that’s not my ambition. I will never add to the literature of the haute cuisine. I want to cook super simply. I want to know why I like whiting and scup– but many people don’t. Why is that? Maybe the answer is simple: the reason no one fully loves scup is because scup sucks. Or whiting sucks. They don’t ship well, they don’t hold well, they soften too quickly. And that’s why cod and salmon hold the seats at the table. But maybe the answer is different. Maybe we haven’t tried hard enough to really figure them out. Maybe not enough people have tried to cook them. Regardless, I want my kids to grow up seeing whole fish on plates, as well as seeing small fish, fish way down the trophic level, fish that are more prey than predators, fish such as scup, whiting, squid, butterfish. This is not new, many are trying to doing this. My wish is to get a few friends in my community to try (I’ll get you the fish) some of the ways of preparing and eating them and then have a talk about it. Compare notes. See what we think. It’s not even grassroots, it’s smaller than that, way way smaller than any trade show booth.