Above the surface, Sarasota’s clear, turquoise waters are calm and peaceful, the embodiment of tranquility. But below the waves, a vibrant world of fish and sea life exist. It is an unseen struggle for survival with no foreseeable end in sight. And it is this struggle that is leading us above the surf to eat trash. And we’re loving it. Spanning coast to coast, the Trash Fish Movement sounds iffy, arousing images of the freeganism fad of the former decade. But don’t be fooled – this fish is not garbage, it is not old, it is not used, it is not fishy. It’s not trash and it can be quite gourmet.
Why we say "Trash Fish"
The term ‘trash fish’ is not an accurate moniker for this culinary item. It was a trendy phrase that stuck, but in reality it is simply a catch all for the lesser-known species, as explained by local chef Steve Phelps of Indigenous Restaurant. As a whole, we are so accustomed to ordering Instagram-ready fillets of grouper, salmon, and tuna that the myriad of other species are ignored and thrust aside. Like, you know, trash. The problem is that these species, although delicious, are not the only fish in the sea. Salmon and tuna are not local. Grouper is overfished. And our palates are not expanding.
Casting our Lines Where We Are
What the Trash Fish movement is attempting to bring to light is not unlike the Eat Local movement – that we need to eat more of what is local and in season and not force the comfortable menu. Just like you won’t get a mango in Wisconsin in December, but you will get amazing MacIntosh apples there in October. Eat it where it’s from and when it’s ready and the food will shine. The same applies to fish. What can be brought in to the dock on that day is what we need to embrace. The red drum (also referred to as redfish), the snapper (lane, mangrove, red), the amberjack, the hogfish, the cobia, the mullet (fish, not hairstyle). To a visitor, and many locals, these are unfamiliar and sometimes the unfamiliar is scary. But here’s the thing – because it’s caught here today, it’ll be fresh, not fishy, and taste of the local waters from which it came.
The groupers of the sea are not off-limits, of course. Many are local and if you have the good fortune to catch one, by all means, cook that fish up and enjoy. But explore beyond the fillet. Have you had grouper cheeks? Swoon. Some of the best parts are often discarded and treated like, you guessed it, trash.
Sarasota’s Trash Fish extends beyond the local catches. It also branches into aquaculture and invasive species. Aquaculture, led by Longboat Key’s Mote Marine Labratories, utilizes man-made salt ponds for their fish to ensure there are no hormones, no pollutants, and it’s all-sustainable. Their products are sold at the Saturday Farmer’s Market – nothing screams ‘I’m in Sarasota and living like a local’ more than going to the farmer’s market and buying locally sourced fish. If you see their caviar, buy it. Trust me.
Try the Lionfish
Seeing ‘lionfish’ on the menu may excite some diners, and may intimidate others. Whichever fits you, I beseech you to dive in and eat it. As much as you can. Not only because it’s delicious – very mild, white, and definitely not poisonous once the spines are removed – but also because they are destroying the waters. This invasive species from the Indian and Pacific Oceans is taking a toll on our reefs and their fish. With no natural enemies, it multiplies quickly with an appetite to match. Corals and fish populations, including the beloved grouper, are declining due to their presence. The only solution thus far is to spearfish and devour them. The silver lining is that chefs have discovered mouthwatering methods for preparing these former dentist-office tank residents. Any opportunity – be it at Whole Foods, a local fish market, a restaurant, a lionfish derby (yes, we have these), or a successful spearfishing trip – is well worth taking.
While Traveling, Ask "Where Is The Fish Sourced?"
My own eye-opening experience was with sand dabs. I had never heard of them and my mind flooded with visions of cow pies or a crunchy jellyfish-slime of sorts. But when I spotted them on a menu near Pier 39 in San Francisco, I knew I needed to give them a try. Local? Unheard of? Unavailable at home in Florida? Count me in. Rather than ordering the safer tourist-friendly salmon or tuna, I gave these mystery fish a try and, by doing so, had an experience I couldn’t obtain anywhere else and supported the local resources. To me, this is traveling. But it is also the basis of trash fish.
Most restaurants will disclose where their fish was sourced when you ask, including the aforementioned Indigenous, whose daily menu features a “Plentiful and Abundant“ entrée which showcases sustainable options that change daily. Veronica Fish and Oyster recently featured both red drum and Mote sturgeon. And Owen’s Fish Camp provides a daily change of local fish options based on current availability. Or take a shot at prepping these oceanic treasures yourself. Maybe you went fishing but don’t know what to do with your catch. Don’t throw it back. Don’t give it away. Those are not trash, they are treasures. Since 2013, the countrywide Chefs Collaborative has been hosting Trash Fish Dinners to give consumers and chefs an opportunity to explore what these species can do. And you can, too. Pop onto Pinterest, grab a recipe, and let the culinary adventures begin. Host your own Trash Fish Dinner. And, frankly, when you go home from your vacation and brag to your friends or post your travel pictures, it’ll undoubtedly be much cooler to say you ate lionfish. Tastes better, too.
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