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Best Food Writing 2001 brings together, for the second year, the most exceptional writing culled from the past year's books, magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and web sites. Within its five sections—Stocking the Larder, Home Cooking, Someone's in the Kitchen, Dining Around and Personal Tastes—read our best writers on everything from the year's most celebrated chefs to extraordinary restaurant experiences, from the latest trends in ingredients and equipment to unforgettable memoirs inspired by cooking and ...
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Best Food Writing 2001 brings together, for the second year, the most exceptional writing culled from the past year's books, magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and web sites. Within its five sections—Stocking the Larder, Home Cooking, Someone's in the Kitchen, Dining Around and Personal Tastes—read our best writers on everything from the year's most celebrated chefs to extraordinary restaurant experiences, from the latest trends in ingredients and equipment to unforgettable memoirs inspired by cooking and eating. Neither cook nor food lover should be without this remarkable annual collection. Included are contributions by R.W. Apple, Jr., Amanda Hesser, Ruth Reichl, Jeffrey Steingarten, Jane and Michael Stern, Calvin Trillin, Gael Greene, Mimi Sheraton, Jonathon Reynolds, Eric Schlosser, and many others.
by Jeffrey Steingarten
It's worth subscribing to Vogue just to read Jeffrey Steingarten's monthly food articles—hearty appreciations of the art of eating well. In this installment, he takes us on a wild ride in search of flesh tuna.
Aft here, drive 'em aft," I shouted. "Call all hands! Man the capstan! Lower away ... and after him!"
I stood before the mirror in my bedroom, admiring my new outfit and rehearsing the handful of nautical phrases I had collected from my dog-eared copy of Moby Dick. Soon I would be jetting toward Ensenada on the Pacific Coast of Baja California, where I would set out upon an epic hunt for ... the giant bluefin!
Why the bluefin? Simply because the raw meat from its belly is one of the most delicious things on Earth. Isn't that enough?
Bluefin are tunas, one of about thirteen species, depending on who is doing the counting. They are among nature's most perfectly designed creatures. They are among the largest (1,800 pounds appears to be the record) and the fastest (capable of bursts as high as 56 miles an hour) fish in the sea. Bluefin are able to navigate from Japan to California and back, from the Caribbean to Norway—they have binocular vision, acute hearing, sensors in their skin for pressure and temperature, and magnetic particles in their body that are thought to act as compasses. They are astonishingly streamlined, with hollows into which their fins retract and flatten at high speeds. Their bodies are 75percent muscle. From birth until death, bluefin can never stop moving forward. If they did, they would die of suffocation. Bluefin are hungry predators, consuming up to 25 percent of their weight each day in sardines, squid, herring, and other living treats. They hunt like wolves, in deadly packs, which we call "schools" to make them seem cuter.
Bluefin are also the most valuable wild animals on Earth.
I have read that the world record for one giant bluefin is $83,500, set in 1992 at Tsukiji, the world's largest central wholesale market in Tokyo. This comes to nearly $120 a pound. I've read higher numbers since 1992. More typical auction prices these days at Tsukiji (pronounced "skee gee") range from $15 to $40 a pound, a weakness ascribed to Japan's current economic problems. The daily auctions at Tsukiji set the world prices for bluefin, because the Japanese are prepared to pay more than anybody else for its flesh. Go to www.fis-net.com/fis/species, choose Tuna as the species, click on Market Prices, scroll down to Bluefin, and you can follow bluefin prices throughout Japan whenever you're curious. I am always curious.
The price of a bluefin depends on its size, freshness, and shape (it should be roughly football-shaped, with a swelling underside). Most important is the quality of its flesh, especially the amount and grade of toro—the meat from its tender, fatty belly. Bluefin experts at Tsukiji carry a sashibo, a long, thin, hollow metal rod that can be plunged under the gills and right through the fish to extract a sample of its meat, layer by layer, like a geological core.
The upper half of the body consists of rich, shiny red meat called akami, of which the middle section, the naka, is of the highest quality. Between the upper body and the belly is a dark, bloody muscle called the chiai, which many people will not eat, though my dog, Sky King, has no compunctions. Nearly all the toro is found in the belly, which gets fattier, more delicate, and more sought after the nearer it is to the head. The middle and tail sections of the belly are medium-grade toro, chu-toro. Right behind the gills is the kama, perhaps the choicest cut on the entire bluefin, although among some connoisseurs, just the masticatory muscle is an object of profound gastronomic worship. I had some the other day and found it a bit sinewy. Some bluefin also have a rare and valuable form of toro near the bones on their dorsal side, the upper body, called se-toro. I may have tasted se-toro at a little dump of a sushi place in Santa Monica, but I'm not sure.
Two thin little rectangles of o-toro at a top sushi place in this country will cost you $20, in Tokyo much more. That is why I have never been able to eat enough toro for complete satisfaction.
The Japanese are not alone in their love of tuna belly. I have an Italian bluefin map from 1919. It shows the vetresca or sorra bianca, the fatty belly, and above it, where the Japanese chutoro lies, is the Italian tarantello. And the part of the belly just behind the head—the fattiest and most valuable—appears to be called pendini or spuntatore. Things have not changed much since Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History, in the first century: "The choicest parts are the neck and the white flesh of the belly, and the throat, provided they are fresh....; the parts from near the jaw are the most sought after."(Ahi, which you see listed with pride on most American menus these days, is yellowfin tuna, which the Japanese consider inferior not only to bluefin but also to southern bluefin, bigeye, and albacore, and just ahead of skipjack.)
Where were you when you first tasted o-toro? I was in Los Angeles, ten years ago, sitting at the counter of Ginza Sushiko, a very fine sushi restaurant then in a little strip mall on Wilshire. The chef, Mass Takayama, placed two smooth pink rectangles of fish on my plate, and I took one into my mouth, unaware that this, at last, was toro. At first it was like having a second tongue in my mouth, a cooler one, and then the taste asserted itself, rich and delicately meaty, not fishy at all. The texture is easier to describe—so meltingly tender as to be nearly insubstantial, moist and cool, not buttery or velvety as people sometimes say. Have you ever tasted a piece of velvet?
I knew this was one of those peak gastronomic moments you never forget, like the last time you ate a perfect peach, or the first time you tasted raw milk Camembert or sautéed foie gras, or every time you have white truffles or pizza bianca. I immediately formulated a theory that moments like these draw on the genetic memory of the human race, reaching across national and racial lines, superseding all questions of taste.
I can vaguely appreciate the romance of fishing. As a boy, I was able to read the first half of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea before losing interest. I have shared a charter or two out of Montauk at the end of Long Island to catch striped bass and bluefish (no relation). And one of my oldest friends, usually well-balanced, has become a fly fisherman. He jets to Tierra del Fuego (no joke) to catch river trout and then throw them all back. The idea is to outwit these intelligent creatures—and more generally to subdue the primordial forces of nature.
That is not my goal. My goal is not to subdue Nature. My goal is to eat Nature.
Preparations for my trip to Ensenada had gone smoothly. The only snag was in finding the right outfit. It was December. The weather could be balmy and dry, balmy and wet, cold yet dry, or cold and wet. I knew what I needed: a light but not flimsy shell crafted from a space-age fabric that was breathable yet waterproof. My closet was littered with 20 years' worth of allegedly breathable yet waterproof shells that either admitted water like cheesecloth or hermetically held in one's body heat and moisture like a terrarium. At last I found the ideal balance in a vastly overpriced shell from Patagonia in chic and slimming black, not the perfect color if you need to be rescued from the angry sea. But since when was high fashion supposed to be practical?
Gloria Steinem once told me that she avoids any occasion for which you have to buy new clothes. That's where we part ways. To pursue and eat the giant bluefin, I would gladly buy any number of superfluous new outfits. Ms. Steinem's scruples would leave her languishing on the dock.
My plan was to drive down to Ensenada and visit one of the few bluefin farms in the eastern Pacific. Then I would go in search of a tuna boat—commercial or sports—that would take me out in search of the giant bluefin. Ensenada is an hour and a half down the coast of Baja California from the U.S.-Mexico border crossing. The last half hour of coastline is spectacularly beautiful in any weather, and that day the air and ocean were crystalline and pure. I was driven down by Philippe Charat, a principal owner of Maricultura del Norte and its bluefin farm off the coast, who had offered to show me his operation and help me find a tuna fishing boat. Somewhere in between we would have a lunch of abalone and perhaps a little raw bluefin. Only the thought of lunch could alleviate the mild depression brought on by the weather, which was too warm and clear for my brand-new outfit.
The water was too choppy for us to take a small company boat from a rocky beach conveniently opposite the floating farm, and so we traveled farther down the coast, clambered into a company truck, and drove for a nauseating eternity on one of the most perilous dirt-and-rock roads I have ever known. Driving high above the sea, we occasionally glimpsed a magical sight—eight delicate, perfect circles on the glittering ocean. These were the bluefin holding pens, in fact not small at all, 130 feet in diameter. At long last we reached another beach. Disoriented and, I feared, permanently damaged, I clumsily boarded a small motorboat, and we threaded our way among the tiny pastel boats of sea-urchin divers and out onto the open water.
The international trade in fresh bluefin developed in the 1970s, when methods of refrigeration and air-cargo handling became sophisticated enough that a giant bluefin could be caught or harpooned off the coast of New England on a Monday and be auctioned fresh in Tokyo on Wednesday. Until then, bluefin were a popular game fish but a complete nuisance to Northeast commercial fishermen, worth pennies a pound, and then only when the cat-food business was brisk. Americans did not enjoy eating oily, dark bluefin. Tuna here was a light, canned sandwich spread. James Beard once wrote (or so I've been told—I can't find the reference) that tuna is the only food better canned than fresh.
Once the heady prices at Tsukiji became available to nearly every bluefin boat in the world a fishing frenzy followed. Purseseine technology involving vast nets that could be drawn closed around entire schools of giant bluefin meant that more fish could be caught by one boat in one year than by all the other fishermen in the world combined! By the 1990s the world bluefin population had been reduced by 80 to 90 percent. Quotas have been enacted and poorly enforced.
These issues are the subject of bloody battles among conservationists, commercial fishermen, and sports fishermen. Satellite-tagging studies may help us to understand the life cycle and migration patterns of the bluefin, about which we know next to nothing. Bluefin farms established years ago in Japan and later developed with Japanese—help in Port Lincoln, Australia, Spain, Ensenada, and elsewhere—may someday help to alleviate this potential disaster.
In ten minutes we arrived at the busy farming operation and its eight pens, each one a huge ring of pipes and floats from which hung a cylindrical net going 30 feet deep and anchored to the ocean floor another 20 feet below. Six months earlier thousands of young bluefin had been caught using the purse-seine method, towed back very slowly, and distributed among the eight holding pens. Here they were fattened up on a diet of fresh sardines.
We climbed onto a thankfully stable, flat-bottomed barge tied up to one of the holding pens, were briefly amused by sea lions and pelicans, then turned our attention to the bloody business taking place on the barge next to ours. It was harvesting time. Two hundred of the bluefin were confined in one small section of the pen. They were all about four feet long, and weighed between 50 and 60 pounds. (Only bluefin farms in the waters off Spain produce 300- to 400-pound fish, just large enough to qualify as giants.) In all bluefin farms, the fish are kept for no more than six months, just long enough to fatten them and enhance the quality of their toro.
Divers swam among the bluefin and took hold of them, one at a time, by thrusting a gloved hand and forearm into its gills and lifting it onto the open edge of the barge, which was completely padded with what looked like a gigantic sky-blue mattress. (Without the padding, and maybe even with it, the side of the bluefin that lies against the deck, called shitami in Japanese, will bring a lower price at the Tsukiji market than the upper side, uwami.) As each bluefin was slid onto the barge, one of several workers wearing blood-splashed yellow slickers and pants killed it nearly instantly, in the Japanese manner, with a spike to the head and a wire down the spinal column, which not only is humane but prevents continuing muscle spasms that can damage the meat, "burning" it with lactic acid, which is also released when a bluefin struggles for too long in a net or at the end of a sportsman's line. A good judge of tuna at Tsukiji, they say, can taste how a fish died.
Now the bluefin was immediately bled, gutted, hosed down, and dropped into a slurry of water and ice to bring down its body temperature and prevent spoilage. (Tuna are warm-blooded.) Tomorrow, it would be cleaned again, packed for shipment, and driven to the Los Angeles airport for its last run—probably to Tokyo but possibly to New York City, certainly one of the largest sushi markets outside Japan. Sometimes I feel like a giant bluefin, my powerful musculature propelling me about the world in search of food. If we stop, we die.
By now, after long conversations with many tuna men, I had concluded that I was not going to find my tuna boat in Ensenada. The season was over. There were no sports fishermen in sight. Bluefin were being caught, but only as an incidental catch, by very large commercial fishing vessels that stay hundreds of miles out for three weeks or more, at least 20 times the number of days I had allocated for my boat ride, o-toro or no o-toro.
Though I was inconsolable, I kept it bottled up. I was even able to simulate voracious hunger at our very late abalone lunch. Then I gathered up my new outfit, still unused. We bade goodbye to our companions and crossed the gestapo-like U.S. border just after dark.
The next day Philippe generously brought me a quarter of one of the harvested bluefin, about ten pounds of solid muscle in one long piece. It was a lower quarter, the part with the toro. I immediately got out my Japanese diagrams and began slicing and eating, eating and slicing. But my joy was tinged with foreboding. For I knew that my fated meeting with a giant bluefin lay ahead.
My mouth still full of toro, I got on the phone, searched the Internet, and after several hours ascertained that the only bluefin fishing in the entire world had just begun off Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My new outfit and I would be ready.
My friend Joe, an avid game fisherman, and I chose Captain Jeffrey Ross and his 55-foot boat, The Obsession, on the basis of very little information; chartered the boat for $1,000 (plus a 20 percent tip for the mate); figured out how to get to Hatteras, a town at the remote southern end of Cape Hatteras; and counted the days. I bought a practical book about fishing for giant bluefin. It was called Fish the Chair if You Dare. (This refers to the revolving chair bolted to the deck, into which the angler is strapped to keep him or her from being dragged off the boat by his or her prey.) I judged this book only by its cover and concluded that the last thing I wanted to do was go fishing in the open sea in the middle of winter. What arbitrary and destructive force was pulling me ineluctably toward my star-crossed encounter with this monstrous ruler of the frozen deep? I believe it was the editor of Vogue.
Two weeks later I flew to Norfolk alone—Joe's wife had just given birth—and drove nearly three hours in the dark to an ocean-front motel in Nags Head, North Carolina, near the northern end of Cape Hatteras. I booked a wake-up call for 4:45 a.m. the last time, I hope, that this will ever prove necessary. I was sharing tomorrow's charter with several anglers from Richmond, Virginia. They would pick me up at 5:30 for the 75-minute drive to Hatteras, to Teach's Lair Marina, to The Obsession.
We arrived as the sun was rising, and were soon speeding past the harbor buoys and into the open sea. The air was warming—my new outfit was perfect—and the sky was clear. But the water was painfully choppy. One of us became very sick. Two others, including me (wearing a scopolamine patch behind my ear), barely held our own until we reached the place where the bluefin were supposed to be. 34 miles out, an hour and a half from land, where the ocean was suddenly calm.
The bluefin fishery off Hatteras was discovered by chance in December 1992, in the waters over a shipwreck about fourteen miles from shore. Cape Hatteras vaguely parallels the coast of North Carolina in a sweeping curve, where a cold stream from the north and a warm stream from the south meet, a confluence that for some reason attracts the migrating bluefin. The National Marine Fisheries Service allowed us to keep one bluefin per boat per day, if we caught any at all, but we were not allowed to sell it. No commercial bluefin fishing is allowed here. If Neptune smiled on us that day, we would have to eat all the kama, o-toro, and chu-toro ourselves.
Here is how you catch a bluefin: The mate plants three or four short, thick fishing rods in receptacles on both sides of the deck. Then he takes three or four dead fish from a cooler and baits the hooks with them. He pulls out several yards of line from each reel—big, brass reels—and throws the baited hooks into the water. Meanwhile the boat is moving slowly forward. The mate cuts up fish from another cooler and throws the pieces into the water, which is called chumming and is intended to attract a school of bluefin. Which is exactly what it did.
First one reel and then another started whizzing and whirring as bluefin went for the bait, were hooked in the sides of their mouths, and sped away from the boat, drawing out yards and yards of line. You sit in the fighting chair; a rod is thrust between your legs into a gimbal attached to the seat; another man stands behind the chair to turn it as the direction of the fish changes. You begin reeling in the bluefin, sometimes allowing it to make another run and pull out more line. Turning the reel against the pull of the bluefin is impossible. Instead, you repeatedly pull the rod back toward you by pushing off with your feet and then, as you lower it again, you furiously wind the reel to take up the slack.
Neptune did smile that morning. One bluefin after another hooked itself onto our rods. Each time, as soon as the bluefin was pulled to the side of the boat, the mate cut the line and set it free. We caught fifteen, I think, and kept one, which later, on the docks, weighed in at 145 pounds and 65 inches.
After watching nearly all morning, I took the fighting chair and caught an eighteen-pound blackfin tuna, not very good eating. I could not decide whether to be happy or embarrassed. Then, in the afternoon, there was a 180-pound bluefin on the other end of my line, the largest of the day. Several times in our struggle, I had to let it run free before reeling in the line once again. Getting it next to the boat took two of us. I have some photos. People have been extremely impressed.
Excerpted from Best Food Writing 2001 by . Copyright © 2001 by Holly Hughes and Avalon Publishing Group Incorporated. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.