Figuring out whether the fish on your plate is as advertised is harder than you’d imagine.
Deshayes tested that theory at the third annual Fresh Thoughts dinner. The event, sponsored by Oceana and hosted at the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., featured a multi-course tasting of authentic seafood alongside cut-rate doppelgangers.
Attendees — including National Aquarium staff, public policy advocates, a young woman studying environmental science and a college-aged gentleman who shared his love of fishing area waterways — began getting schooled in the art of epicurean misdirection the minute they stepped into the tank-lined exhibit hall.
One chart displayed filets of commonly served fish — Pacific cod, tilapia, escolar, rockfish, farm-raised Atlantic salmon — next to lesser known knockoffs. (Very hard to differentiate, especially for an untrained eye.)
But an ice-filled bowl of genuine (halibut, snapper, wild king salmon) vs. fake-out (fluke, corvine, farm-raised salmon) filets proved to be the real conversation starter.
“I’m not even sure you could trust Whole Foods, but maybe that’s just me,” one attendee said, second-guessing her own shopping habits after puzzling over the mystery fish.
Servers floated around with complimentary beverages and gourmet nibbles.
A swallow of shrimp ceviche was dominated more by accompaniments (lime bath, diced onions) than the main event (neutral shellfish).
A spoonful of crab mac and cheese featured rich, cheesy elbow macaroni enveloping finely shredded savory crab.
Or so we all thought.
“Tonight, I lied just to play with you,” Deshayes announced once everyone was seated, finally clueing in guests as to what they’d actually let slide down their gullets.
The ceviche sported farm-raised shrimp (impossible to tell), the caviar was actually paddlefish roe from Missouri (somewhat stunning), and the mac and cheese had been seeded with imitation crab (par for the course).
But Deshayes was just getting started.
The deception continued as patrons were plied with cleverly concealed stand-ins. Black grouper from Panama City, Fla., cooked escabeche style, was escorted by a similarly prepared weakfish from Port Pierce, Fla. My tablemates leaned toward the fatty, oilier portion on the left being the grouper; I actually preferred the leaner, flakier cut on the left, which turned out to be the weakfish.
The salmon course proved tougher. Each plate was piled with pan-roasted Alaska wild king salmon from Kodiak Island alongside farm-raised salmon from the east coast of Canada.
“I don’t know,” a fellow journo offered after examining slices of each up close.
“I’m clueless,” an Oceana aide said.
“Well, they all taste delicious,” a punchy layman proclaimed.
We finally reached a consensus, properly distinguishing the wild salmon (terrific sear, stronger taste) from the fake (burnt orange color, buttery flesh).
The final exam put the elusive red snapper up against farm-raised tilapia from Ecuador, masking both in a vibrant chimichurri crust. The snapper shined through, revealing a heartier, gamier taste than the more innocuous interloper.
Reeling Things In
Lasprogata acknowledged being familiar with Oceana and its study, but indicated that he doesn’t buy the arguments wholesale. He projected that 5 percent to 6 percent of the industry might be deliberately trying to overcharge for an inferior product.
“As many proteins increase in price, it’s an opportunity for the unscrupulous,” Lasprogata argued. “And that’s the problem that needs to be addressed.”